As many Chennai residents know, students of Pachaiyappa’s College have taken their protests to the streets of the city for about as long as the 170-year-old institution has been around. So no one was really surprised when the students ransacked a liquor shop near their campus on Monday and the violence spilled onto the road. What did cause surprise, though, was their demand: they wanted the liquor shop to be closed down.

In fact, the entire state of Tamil Nadu suddenly finds itself gripped by something that  looks like an anti-liquor movement. On Tuesday, several opposition parties got together to call a bandh in the state to press for a liquor ban. The prohibitionist sentiment turned especially acute last fortnight after opposition leader M Karunanidhi spoke in favour of clamping down on booze. The temperance demands spread quickly after a Gandhian activist from Salem, Sasiperumal, died on Thursday during a protest demanding closure of a liquor shop in Kanyakumari district.

Liquor shops are being vandalised and forced shut in many parts of the state, which has an on-off relationship with prohibition. In 1937, the district of Salem became the first place in India to ban liquor.  Since then, the state has swung back and forth on the policy.

Huge revenues

The unity being displayed by the opposition in this demand for prohibition is intriguing. After all, the government expects to earn a quarter of its annual tax revenue from liquor and itself runs 6,800 alcohol retail outlets. Underlying the demands are a heady cocktail of political opportunism and public concern about the effects of liquor on poor families.

The Pattali Makkal Katchi has long been demanding a liquor ban, but other opposition parties have also begun to echo its line for fear of being perceived as pro-alcohol. The Bharatiya Janata Party has voiced its demand for prohibition, as has the Desiya Murpoku Dravidar Kazhagam, even though its founder, the actor Vijayakanth, had been trolled heavily on the internet with memes suggesting his fondness for liquor. The most vociferous champion of the cause recently has been Vaiko, leader of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

Not only was Vaiko’s nonagenarian mother, Mariammal, present at a protest in his hometown of Kalingapatti in Tirunelveli district on Sunday, even Viduthalai Chirithaikal Katchi leader Thol Thirumavalavan joined in. The event led to the police firing on protestors as they ransacked a shop run by  as TASMAC ‒ the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation.

TASMAC was set up in 1983 as the sole agency for wholesale liquor sales. In 2003, Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa entrusted TASMAC with the responsibility of retail sales, too. TASMAC is now synonymous with liquor in Tamil Nadu. After the government took full control of the liquor business in the state, the corporation's business grew from Rs 3,640 crore in 2003-'04 to Rs 26,188 crore in 2014-'15.

The growing profits are a clear indicator that alcohol consumption is rising in the state, causing health problems for many and economic distress in poor families. As a result, there is growing disenchantment among some sections, particularly women, against what is perceived to be a liquor menace. This has provided the PMK and other parties a potent poll plank as the state goes to the elections this year.

Political flipflop 

Dravida Munnnetra Kazhagam chief Karunanidhi's decision to join the bandwagon has irked  PMK founder S Ramadoss. The PMK claimed that Karunanidhi is being hypocritical, pointing out that it was he who had lifted prohibition in 1971, two years after he became chief minister.

So far, Jayalalithaa's AIADMK government has expressed its inability to usher in prohibition. In 2014, Prohibition and Excise Minister Natham R Viswanthan told the state assembly that it was impossible since it would be impossible to stop the import of liquor from neighbouring states. He had also recommended that alcoholics be reformed by creating awareness about the harmful effects of liquor. But in an assembly debate the previous year, Viswanathan had said that the government was not against total prohibition and that it was implementing the liquor policy only with "bitterness".

For now, it isn't clear whether the AIADMK will stop being bitter and shut off the spigot.

The writer is Managing Editor of Provoke Lifestyle magazine, which is published from Chennai.