Month to go for MCD polls, AAP liquor policy hiccups lift BJP spirits

LOOKING to wrest the Municipal Corporations of Delhi, which remain with the BJP despite the Aam Aadmi Party’s two successive Assembly poll sweeps in the Capital, the Arvind Kejriwal government has run into a hiccup: its new liquor policy.

The liberalised policy, which marks the exit of the government altogether from the liquor business, and clears the path for reducing drinking age from 25 to 21 and allowing home delivery of alcohol, has given the BJP a handle a month ahead of the civic polls – just when AAP had it on the back foot over allegations of corruption, mismanagement and negligence by the corporations.

Four months since the implementation of the policy, AAP has had to make an amendment, essentially banning liquor vendors from offering discounts, landing it in a court case. The government defended its move saying vends were getting overcrowded by customers, leading to law and order issues.

Announcing the new policy last March, Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia had said, “selling liquor should not be the business of a government”, while underlining that the new policy promised higher excise earnings for the government. The policy was finally rolled out in November 2021.

The BJP has been in power in Delhi’s three municipal corporations for 15 years. In 2017, it had skirted anti-incumbency and allegations of corruption by denying tickets to any sitting councillors. However, for three years now, AAP has singularly focused on the corporations, holding regular protests and press conferences, cashing in also on the protests by MCD employees over non-payment of salaries.

Then came the new liquor policy. For four months now, the roles have been reversed, with the BJP now holding protests regularly over the issue.

Before the new policy, Delhi had around 850 liquor shops, more than half of which were run by the government. After the change, the total number of vends were to remain the same but be reallocated to ensure even distribution.

This meant shutting vends in some locations and starting new ones in other places. This was when the first protests happened, in areas where the new shops came up. While a majority were led by the BJP or the Congress, a few were spearheaded by locals as well.

The issue was also raked up by both the BJP and Congress in the Punjab elections, where AAP has a stake, accusing the Kejriwal government of promoting alcoholism. Incidentally, in both BJP-ruled Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, the minimum drinking age is 21, which was what the Kejriwal government had cited for its change.

In early January, as the BJP intensified its protests in the Capital, Sisodia accused its leaders of being worried about losing their “commission”. “Before the new liquor policy, there were no liquor shops in about 80 wards. In these places, illegal liquor shops were being run with the patronage of BJP leaders, in connivance with the MCD and police… Before the new excise policy, Delhi’s revenue from liquor was Rs 6,000 crore, now this has increased to Rs 9,500 crore,” he said.

The BJP has also been alleging a plan to set up separate “pink thekas” for women, a claim denied by Excise Department officials. Recently, BJP North West Delhi MP Hans Raj Hans said: “Pink theke se pi ke, galiyon aur naaliyon main agar koi gir gayin, achi lagengi auratein aise jhoolti huin (If women fall into drains and streets after drinking at pink liquor vends, if they stumble, will it look good)?”

The protests are also the reason that the framework for two key elements of the new policy – the lowering of drinking age and home delivery of alcohol – has not yet been passed by the Assembly.

A senior leader said they did not want to join issue with the BJP, as it might only help spread its “misinformation”. “There is no way to respond to these allegations, some of which are completely bogus, without getting mired in unnecessary controversy before the polls,” the leader said.

An AAP leader closely associated with the municipal campaign said that contrary to the BJP’s claims of an increase in liquor vends, “the number of shops in Delhi has come down”. “Only about 500 are open now, while many are mired in battles in courts or with the municipal corporations.”

A government official said: “The fact is that the changes in the policy have brought significant funds to the government. There are several teething problems, but we believe they will sort themselves out. The government has decided to tackle any backlash through the officials and the Excise Department, not through politics.” The official admitted that among those who have complained about the new policy are RWAs or even councillors. “We have ordered many vends shut too. This, however, will not be highlighted by the government as the idea is to keep the focus away from this issue altogether.”

The importance of the municipal polls for AAP cannot be overstated. Last time, not only had it finished behind the BJP, its vote share had shown a considerable dip from the 2015 Assembly polls. Another loss would raise questions regarding the effectiveness of its anti-corruption campaign.

Meanwhile, on Friday, the BJP’s Delhi unit started its “referendum” against the policy. State unit general secretary Kuljeet Singh Chahal said around 50,000 workers will be stationed at markets, near schools and religious places to seek people’s opinion on the issue.

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