Why this kolaveri, Anna?

When bad times come, they come in waves. As Kingfisher rocks in air turbulence, the earth below Vijay Mallya is all set to cave in. That is, if Anna Hazare has his way and tipplers are flogged into abstinence, would that not automatically put VM’s core brewery business also on a crash course? But let’s move on from Mallya and such monumental matters of national concern and mull over the diktats of the man of the moment, AH, vis-a-vis, handling, rather man-handling, of drunkards.

Anna’s recipe for enforcing sobriety goes thus: Step 1: Three warnings to be given to the offending drinker, because ‘he is one of us, our people’. Step 2: If offence continues, drag him to the local temple and make him promise that he will never drink again in his life. Anna probably has not heard that a drunkard’s promise is gone by dawn, temple or no temple and notwithstanding God Himself as witness. The inevitable Step 3 stipulates: Even after all this, if he continues drinking, ‘we will tie him to a pole in the temple and beat him’. There is no hint of Step 4 or further, probably because the drunk would be as dead as the pole and the only drink he will need is the ritualistic ounce of milk poured into his mouth. The nation is understandably aghast at this open advocacy on primetime of corporal punishment, which runs the risk of turning capital.

We will come to the madness of his methods later. But first let’s go through the statutory precautions which, incidentally, are also sensible. And sorry if I sound like Anna Hazare’s distant cousin, which I am not. But like him and many, I do share the view that drinking is an evil of monstrous proportions and it is best addressed only at the individual level. All the cliches of a habitual drunkard wrecking self, family and society, physically, financially and psychologically are true to a T even in these so-called liberal times. Even countries where drinking passes as a social custom or courtesy have woken up to the short distance between cheers and tears. Says WHO: ’ Every year, the harmful use of alcohol kills 2.5 million people, including 320 000 young people between 15 and 29 years of age. It is the third leading risk factor for poor health globally, and harmful use of alcohol was responsible for almost 4% of all deaths in the world’. Alcoholism is indeed an epidemic and needs to be tackled as such, like other diseases that are going viral.

But it is much unlike other afflictions. For one, it is self-inflicted and, therefore, preventable. The infectious bug resides in the vulnerable mind inside, not in the contaminated water outside. All it takes is a weak moment prompted by bad tidings or, ironically, a good turn. Modern lifestyles, so-called social compulsions and endearing surrogate solicitations from Mallya’s ilk are the other key agent provocateurs. The much touted moderation is mostly a myth with the prospect of bliss always one peg away. With the demographic scale also tilting in favour of drink, both in terms of numbers and profile, the social stigma too is on the slide. Kerala, the most literate State, is also the most inebriated one, topping the national liquor sales. Long ago, while the drinkers at the bottom rungs went for cheap arrack, the rich favoured highbrow brews. Today, for the burgeoning middle class, incidentally Anna’s constituency, sarakku is not a problem so long as it is not sarayam but anything seemai, and affordable! Reason why lowly TASMACS will have company in the form of Elite Wine Shops, courtesy Governments. And with youth and women increasingly patronising Bachchus, (there are women-only bars in some metros, while in Delhi this Deepavali the number of femme fatales walking up to buy bottles had risen, according to media statistics), liquor is fast evolving as the most favoured national drink. Someone having a daily nightcap would still qualify as a teetotaller. In a pervert way, one can’t complain because in our country liquor seems cheaper and safer than drinking water. That in short is the status quo in society.

Liquor reigns in a more potent way too. Like Vijay Mallya, almost all State Governments are addicted to income from it. Take away tax revenues from liquor and the finances of many States will turn, er, unsteady! Small wonder the Prohibition policies of various States, barring Gujarat, have imitated a drunk’s gait, wobbling back and forth, between populism, puritance and prudence. The rising social acceptance, if anything, has actually killed even residual official inhibitions vis-a-vis prohibition which seems prohibited for good. The only objection probably is that everyone, including those who cherish this deemed vice, do not, however, want a wineshop in their vicinity. If the Tasmac topography is set right, the State can have the cake while its subjects can eat it too.

Now does something that is palpably wrong become acceptable just because it is commonplace or lucrative? Maybe not, but what is certain is that Anna’s prescriptions are not. For the record, he sounded as serious as he is about fighting corruption. Flogging a drunk horse into submission is not only simplistic but plain stupid. Frankly, many of us would have felt the urge and rage to punch a misbehaving drunkard, but such a course cannot be paraded as public policy. And his outburst is very ill-timed. At a time when there is a groundswell against corruption and the Parli has almost been forced into bringing a Lokpal bill, the campaigners are likely to be divided and the campaign itself diluted. The appeal of his cause had cut across age, gender and the classes. But most of them may not, rather do not, share his distaste for the drink. No problem about that, because no one is going to ask Anna to break future fasts with drinks other than the customary fruit juice. But certainly the idea of getting a few juicy ones from a stick or whip whilst attached to a lampost cannot be pleasant for them. After all Anna’s ‘diabolical’ designs for drinkers, casual or otherwise, is now national news. Again, what prevents Anna, as a logical fallout, to ask his followers to declare their abstinence as they did their assets? The cocktail crowd that has so painstakingly rallied around his personality would just dry up because the credulity of the crusader is critical in such cases. He risks being ignored as a preachy outdated specimen with strange notions of morality and justice. His detractors, while invoking the Taliban, have already suggested as such. Really, Lokpal which is larger and more lasting than Anna would have been served better without its chief protagonist mixing it up in liquor. Popular activism too can be intoxicating and it’s time Anna sobers down so that his core competence, corruption, is not hit by that heady hangover.

By the way there are other logistical, demand and supply factors conspiring against him. There arent enough temples, and enough poles there either, to accommodate all drinkers. And worse, there are very few to take up the task of beating, the rest having been, well, tied-up!

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Jawahar T R