Across India’s capital, the sound of metal shutters being lowered during off-license permits has left drinkers dry.
The drought, which is expected to last until September 1, is the result of the Delhi government’s abandonment of a new alcohol policy that would have allowed private companies to operate without a license.
Drinkers have been the target of U-turns by the city government, led by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). A few months ago, government-owned liquor outlets were flooded after offering deep discounts for the first time: buy one, get one free and 50% off all types of alcohol.
The unprecedented discounts were being offered because traders had to run out of stock before the new policy took effect.
The AAP was about to withdraw from the management of off-licence licenses and hand them over to private owners. The new stores were to be modern and well-lit, unlike the dingy-in-the-wall stores that sold liquor, and they would be open until 3 a.m. The legal drinking age was to be lowered from 25 to 21.
Politics, however, quickly became a flashpoint between the AAP and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which governs federally from New Delhi. The two parties have been at odds over policies for years and the new privatization policy has proven no different.
The BJP criticized the long queues and growing crowds caused by the discounts. The AAP “promoted” drunkenness, the BJP tut-tutté.
More than the discounts, however, the BJP has started attacking the AAP’s bidding process for awarding licenses to 849 private operators.
The Lieutenant Governor of Delhi is a civil servant appointed by the federal government. The current incumbent, Vinai Kumar Saxena, has accused the AAP of “procedural faults” – a euphemism for corruption – in the bidding process.
The BJP-controlled Federal Central Bureau of Investigation has begun investigating the allegations.
Faced with opposition, the AAP announced on July 30 the abandonment of its policy and the resumption by the Delhi government of control of the shops.
Overnight, the party turned into a famine. The specials were gone and there wasn’t a drop of alcohol to be had. Off-licences were closed as bars and restaurants ran out of alcohol to sell.
Determined drinkers crossed the border into neighboring Haryana state, which has a different policy.
The background to the crisis is the political rivalry between the BJP and the AAP, which projects itself as an alternative to the BJP.
This rivalry has led to frequent clashes in the past, especially since the centrally appointed Lieutenant Governor has the final say on all decisions made by the Delhi government.
“Basically this is all political and has nothing to do with alcohol,” said a Delhi resident who did not want to be named. “Revenue from the licensing has generated a large amount of money for the AAP which it can use to fight the BJP in the elections. The BJP wants to dry up the funds of the AAM, which is why it attacked the new policy.
Subhash Brar (name changed), who got a license in Greater Kailash, said he was shocked by the U-turn but understood the AAP’s policy reversal.
“He is facing a CBI investigation, political pressure from the BJP and the fact that the Lieutenant Governor, the final authority, will side with the BJP. It made any fight futile,” he said.
Until September 1, Delhi is to be a dry city and even then it is unclear how many off-licences will reopen.