“Those are my principles,” said Groucho Marx, “and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.” The convenient and opportunist brand of politics practiced in India lives up to this saying by the American comedian. Nowhere is this stronger than the approach of the political class towards liquor.
Last month, the Maharashtra cabinet allowed supermarkets and walk-in stores to retail wine. This led to a maelstrom of protests from the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with leader of opposition Devendra Fadnavis decrying this as an attempt to transform Maharashtra into ‘Madya Rashtra’ or a nation of liquor. All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) MP Imtiaz Jaleel threatened to smash supermarkets and stores that will retail wine and pointed to the adverse impact of liquor on society, especially women. Social activist Anna Hazare broke his long silence to criticize the move, while Sambhajirao Bhide Guruji of the Shivprathisthan Hindustan tore into the state government, adding that he would appeal to Governor BS Koshyari to dismiss it.
However, the opposition reeks of double standards considering that leaders across party lines have substantial stakes in the industry, from producing spirit and alcohol, which is used as the raw material for liquor, to its manufacturing and sale.
According to the Maharashtra State Co-operative Sugar Factories Federation, the state has around 137 distilleries, of which 72 are in the co-operative sector, 46 are privately owned and 19 are stand-alone units. Apart from the molasses and ethanol that are sold to the oil marketing companies (OMCs) for blending in fuel, these units also produce about 25 crore liter rectified spirit and extra neutral alcohol (ENA). While rectified spirit is used to manufacture country liquor (CL), ENA is used for Indian-Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL). Many sugar mills have distilleries and CL and IMFL manufacturing units. A total of 45 IMFL and 39 CL manufacturing units are operational in Maharashtra.
Manas Agro Industries Infrastructure Ltd, in which BJP union minister Nitin Gadkari’s son Sarang Gadkari is a full-time director, is involved in production and sale of IMFL and CL near Nagpur. The company has a distillery with a 90,000 liters per day capacity in its plant at Bela, 40 km from Nagpur. Pramod Sonawane, district superintendent, state excise, said Manas Agro produced and sold over 472,000 bulk liter IMFL till January during the current financial year. According to him, Manas Agro also tied up with Deokar Distilleries of Konkan and produced and sold approximately 146,000 bulk liters of country liquor since January in the current financial year.
“The manufacturing process of rectified spirit and extra neutral alcohol is based on the modern automation technology of multi-pressure vacuum distillation. We focus on excellent quality of potable rectified spirit as per the requirement of vendors and exporters,” says Manish Mehta, another director of Manas Agro.
Senior BJP leader and former minister Pankaja Munde’s husband Charudatta aka Amit Palve is a director in Radico NV Distilleries Maharashtra at Aurangabad. When contacted, Palve confirmed this, but declined further comment.
Regarding this dichotomy, BJP spokesperson Keshav Upadhye said, “The question is the availability of liquor, and not who manufactures it. The youth in Maharashtra must be given good skills and opportunities for personal growth rather than inducing them to drink wine.”
Padmashri Dr Vitthalrao Vikhe Patil Sahakari Sakhar Karkhana Ltd in Ahmednagar is the first co-operative sugar factory in Asia. It operates its distillery and manufactures the popular ‘Rocket’ brand of country liquor. Former BJP minister Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil is the chairman of the co-operative. In response, Vikhe Patil told HT, “Country liquor is not sold in a mall. The issue is that of selling wine in a mall. Country liquor is sold in a country liquor shop.”
The Karmaveer Shankarrao Kale Sahakari Sakhar Karkhana located in the same district and chaired by Ashutosh Kale, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) MLA from Kopargaon, is known for its ‘Bhingri’ brand of CL. The Sahakar Maharshi Shankarrao Kolhe Sahakari Sakhar Karkhana Ltd at Kopargaon, which is controlled by Bipin Kolhe, the son of former minister Shankarrao Kolhe, produces ‘Bobby,’ another popular CL brand.
Rajarambapu Patil co-operative sugar factory in Sangli, where NCP leader and water resources minister Jayant Patil is a director, manufactures CL and IMFL. NCP MLA Mansingrao Naik is the director of the Viraj Alcohol and Allied Industries Ltd at Sangli, which has a grain-based distillery and country liquor bottling unit. Before his conviction in a criminal case, and gradual political eclipse, Ulhasnagar strongman and NCP leader Suresh aka Pappu Kalani was known as a “liquor king”.
Former BJP MLA Dr Vinay Natu and Shekhar Nikam, NCP MLA from Chiplun, are among those seeking an excise duty waiver or reduction on wine distilled from all fruits, not just grapes, to benefit horticulturists. “Issue a white paper on who owns wine shops, permit rooms and country liquor shops… this is an attempt to divert the topic,” said Natu.
“There are a number of politicians who have taken wine shop licenses (FL-II). The going rate for these licenses (which have to be transferred from one holder to another) is in crores,” noted a state excise official. A foreign liquor manufacturer too noted that the political class adopted double standards when it came to liquor, considering their interests and the industry’s share in the economy and trickle-down benefits for farmers.
In 2020-21, country liquor (32 crore litres) topped the consumption chart followed by beer (30 crore litres) and Indian-Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) (20 crore litres). Wine sales were just around 70 lakh liters.
The political class has a fraught relationship with liquor. Lokmanya Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi’s views on abstinence from liquor due to its social and public health impact led to a vigorous movement against its consumption during the pre-independence era. In 1939, the short-lived Congress government under BG Kher in the Bombay Presidency introduced prohibition.
Prohibition was enshrined as a directive principle of state policy under the Constitution and in 1949, the Congress government in Bombay imposed prohibition, which led to liquor smuggling, bootlegging and growth of the underworld.
Though prohibition was scrapped in 1972, the permit system, which makes it mandatory for drinkers to hold permits allowing them to consume liquor on “health grounds” was introduced. Though the restrictions have been eased over the years, the permit system still continues.
For policy makers, liquor represents the typical Catch-22 choice. Hence, Maharashtra follows a policy of discouraging liquor consumption through high prices and low sales and has one of the highest excise duty regimes in India. After Goods and Services Tax (GST) and stamp duty and registration, state excise revenues are the third highest contributors to the state government’s kitty. Officials admit that successive regimes, including that of the BJP, have looked at the state excise sector to mop up much-needed resources.
“In Maharashtra, there is a straight-forward equation between politics and liquor for decades. Co-operative sugar factories produce liquor… and sell it in the name of farmers. Now, it is being claimed that (the wine policy) will benefit farmers,” said social activist Paromita Goswami of the Shramik Elgar in Chandrapur. Goswami, who was among those who had sought prohibition in the district, said the position of all political parties was duplicitous when it came to liquor.
In 2015, the then BJP-led government had imposed prohibition in Chandrapur, but the decision was scrapped in June 2021 by the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) regime. At present, prohibition is in place in Wardha and Gadchiroli districts in Maharashtra.
“The attitude of political parties toward liquor smacks of double standards considering that people across party lines have stakes in the business,” said political analyst Hemant Desai, while noting that several politicians enjoyed their tipple and candidates distribute liquor to voters during elections.