Op-Ed: Naveen govt can ignore anti-liquor movement at its own peril

One of the major factors behind the landslide victory for Naveen Patnaik and his party in the 2014 elections was the overwhelming support of women. Naveen himself acknowledged as much in his first reaction after the win. Though the exact extent of women’s support for the BJD in that election is not known, estimates put it at least 70%. With that kind of support from a section that constitutes nearly half the population, no party or leader can lose an election.

It is a moot point how much of that support the BJD supremo retains in 2019. But if the spread and intensity of the anti-liquor agitation in the state is anything to go by, those who ensured a thumping victory for Naveen last time could well queer the pitch for him this time. What makes it worrying for the BJD supremo is that the movement against liquor, organized and sustained solely by women, is almost entirely a spontaneous, localized affair that he cannot attribute to an ‘Opposition conspiracy’.

Reports from the ground suggest the very women who batted for Naveen in 2014 are a thoroughly disillusioned lot now. They blame the single-minded, unwavering promotion of liquor in the state by this government for ruining families, spoiling the youth and rise in crimes in the countryside. Even as the youth, many of them BJD workers and supporters, make merry with the easy money and free flowing liquor, their wives, mothers and sisters find their family and social life torn asunder. Whether ritual invocation of the ‘Maa ku Sammana’ mantra and the offer of smart phones to six lakh members of women self help groups (SHGs), strategically made during the just concluded ‘Make in Odisha’ conclave, would be enough to assuage the women’s anger and win back their support is anybody’s guess. After all, the anti-liquor agitation at many places is being led by the members of women SHGs themselves!

The flashpoint at Balarampur in Dhenkanal on Saturday underscored the extent of disillusionment, anger and anguish among women in the villages. It was heart-rending to see women embracing the fallen trees they had tended with so much love and care and sobbing uncontrollably. The scenes were worrying enough for Naveen to realize the potential damage the incident could to his party and government at a time when elections are just a few months away. But the damage had already been done by the time he woke up to the issue and ordered a halt to felling of trees and an inquiry into the incident by the RDC. After all, the Chief Minister himself had ‘laid the foundation’ for the beer plant through ‘video conferencing’ – that wonderful innovation his government has come up to spare him the trouble of visiting a place and facing the wrath of the people – on November 3. That’s why his belated effort to make amends after the ‘horse had bolted’ by ordering a probe is unlikely to cut much ice with the women of Balarampur or, for that matter, the women of the state at large. Excise minister Sashi Bhusan Behera’s pathetic attempt on the day of the incident to justify the felling on the ground that the land on which the trees stood was not forest land proved once again that this is a government in which, as they say, ‘the left hand does not what the right is doing’.

While it is true that the protest by women was not part of the anti-liquor movement sweeping large parts of the state, the fact that nearly 1000 trees were felled to make way for a beer factory was not lost on anyone. It is being seen in public as a reflection of the determination of this government to promote liquor at any cost, women be damned!

Canny politician that he is, Naveen himself appears to have realized the damage potential of the anti-liquor movement driven by women and a few committed activists like freedom fighter Padma Charan Nayak. The belated addition of the campaign against liquor as one of the objectives of the Biju Yuva Vahini is clearly a result of this realization. But it means precious little on the ground because one is yet to see members of the Vahini lead or, at the very least, participate in an anti-liquor protest. In any case, arresting the liquor menace is part of the youth policy promulgated back in 2013. But everyone knows that far from being arrested, liquor has spread its tentacles farther and engulfed newer areas in the last five years.

It’s a classic case of running with the hare and hunting with the hound. If the BJD and the Naveen Patnaik government think they can keep fooling the women and carry on with this double game, they could be in for a rude shock in the next election.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)