I have been a lifelong admirer of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, although the reasons for the admiration have changed over time. He was a great political strategist and tactician and one who simultaneously amalgamated moral integrity, popular proclivities and pragmatic politics to overthrow British colonial rule.
His views on spirituality, relationships, personal habits and economics are less admirable. They ought not to have mattered, but for their being upheld as norms for everyone else, and for Indian society at large. It is possible to respect Gandhi without respecting most aspects of Gandhism.
Gandhism has had many unintended consequences that have harmed Indian society. The most egregious example of this is how Gandhian values created Dawood Ibrahim. Yes, you read that right. There is a causal link between Gandhian values and the dons of the underworld.
Consider. Gandhi was a strong proponent of total prohibition. This became part of the agenda of the Indian National Congress and made its way into the Constitution, as a Directive Principle calling upon the Republic of India to "endeavour to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks..."
Morarji Desai, an ardent disciple of Gandhi, became Home Minister and, later, Chief Minister of Bombay State. He duly ordered restaurants closed at midnight, banned kissing scenes in films and introduced prohibition.
In Dongri to Dubai, a gripping account of the Mumbai underworld, Hussain Zaidi writes, "With such imposition in place, the mafia had a brilliant opportunity to increase their profits-provide the illegal goods not available to interested customers at exorbitant prices. This was the time when [Shaikh Mohammed Al] Ghalib and [Haji] Mastan came into their full form. Within months of the imposition, they started raking in money....the ban, especially of liquor, only provided licence to a growing illicit liquor trade. This trade required brawn and this proved to be the first turning point in the life of Varadarajan Mudaliar."
Once they established themselves, the organised crime syndicates of Mumbai expanded into other areas, creating a number of gang leaders, including in the 1980s, a young man called Dawood Ibrahim. (By the way, Haji Mastan and Karim Lala were detained by Indira Gandhi's Emergency government. They were subsequently released by the government of Prime Minister, er, Morarji Desai. History is like this, sometimes.)
It stands to reason that prohibition was an important reason behind the growth of the underworld and, ultimately, the rise of characters like Dawood Ibrahim.
Unfortunately, governments after Morarji Desai have either not learned the lesson from his puritanical zeal or decided that moral corruption of society is the price they are willing to pay to tackle the problem of alcoholism. Yes, prohibition not only fails to tackle alcoholism, but promotes corruption, greater criminality and erodes moral values of society.
Think about it. Just because the government bans alcohol, the demand doesn't go away. Only the supply falls into the hands of unscrupulous entrepreneurs. Once the industry goes underground, neither government nor society can regulate it or tax it. This means the risk of spurious and dangerous alcohol goes up, especially for the poor who can't afford expensive smuggled bottles of liquor. Also people tend to drink more when they get the opportunity, exacerbating the problem of alcoholism. There is abundant evidence for this around the world.
Worse, the illicit producers of alcohol will offer bribes to law enforcement officials and politicians, creating a vicious cycle of corruption. This will create the conditions for gangs to expand into other areas of activity - from film production to real estate, from fast food to narcotics, raising the levels of criminality. Worst of all, gang leaders, corrupt officials and violent criminals will become role models for impressionable young people as they see such people rise in wealth and social status. I am not indulging in hypothesis. I am explaining Mumbai and many other cities in our country where bans on economic activity have resulted in massive social problems that we are unwilling to acknowledge.
We can cite Gandhi, allude to the Directive Principles, and cite the problem of alcoholism to argue that prohibition is a good thing (especially for the poor, not the rest of us). That is what the Supreme Court done by upholding the Kerala government's decision to impose prohibition in the state. This means the 700 bars that the government closed down will continue to remain shut and government-run liquor retail stores will close down (curiously) at the rate of 10 percent a year. In a state which consumes 200 ml of alcohol per person per week, only 27 five-star hotel bars will serve drinks.
As happened elsewhere in the world, the demand won't change much. Only the suppliers will change. We can reliably expect criminal gangs to move into alcohol distilling, smuggling and retailing. We can expect bribes to flow to police, excise officials and politicians. It's not as if the Supreme Court does not know this. In fact, in its judgement, the bench acknowledges that "History has painstakingly made it abundantly clear that prohibition has not succeeded." Amazingly, it then goes on to say, "Therefore strict state regulation is imperative." It is inexplicable why the bench feels that the Kerala government will be capable of overturning the painstaking lessons of history.
Bihar and Tamil Nadu are also toying with the same bad idea. Prohibition does not work. It is far better to allow the production, sale and consumption of alcohol, regulating for safety and taxing to cover the costs of tackling alcoholism. Politicians contemplating prohibition can think of setting up a fund to tackle the problems of alcoholism, and finance it with liquor taxes.
Gandhi would perhaps have changed his mind if confronted with the evidence we have now.
(Nitin Pai is director of the Takshashila Institution, a think tank and school of public policy. These are his personal views.)
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