All over the Indian capital, the sound of metal shutters being pulled down at off-licences has left drinkers high and dry.
The dry spell, expected to last until 1 September, is the result of Delhi’s government scrapping a new alcohol policy that would have allowed private companies to operate off-licences.
Drinkers have been at the receiving end of U-turns by the city’s government, run by the Aam Aadmi party (AAP). A few months ago, government-owned liquor outlets were deluged after offering hefty discounts for the first time: buy one, get one free, and 50% off on every kind of alcohol.
The unprecedented discounts were being offered because shopkeepers had to deplete their stocks before the new policy came in.
The AAP was poised to get out of the business of running off-licences and hand them over to private owners. The new shops were to be modern and well-lit, unlike the dingy hole-in the-wall shops where alcohol used to be sold, and they would be open until 3am. The legal drinking age was to be reduced from 25 to 21.
The policy, however, quickly became a flashpoint between the AAP and the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), which rules at the federal level from New Delhi. The two parties have been at loggerheads for years on policies and the new privatisation policy has proved no different.
The BJP criticised the long queues and surging crowds brought out by the discounts. The AAP was “promoting” drunkenness, the BJP tut-tutted.
More than the discounts, though, the BJP began attacking the AAP’s tender process for awarding licences to 849 private operators.
The lieutenant governor of Delhi is an official appointed by the federal government. The current holder of the position, Vinai Kumar Saxena, accused the AAP of “procedural lapses” – a euphemism for corruption – in the tendering process.
The federal Central Bureau of Investigation, controlled by the BJP, began investigating the allegations.
Faced with opposition, the AAP announced on 30 July that its policy was to be scrapped and the Delhi government would take control of the shops again.
Overnight, the feast turned into a famine. Special offers were gone and there was no a drop of liquor to be had. Off-licences were shut while bars and restaurants had no alcohol to sell.
Determined drinkers have been driving across the border into neighbouring Haryana state, which has a different policy.
The context of 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, particularly as the central-government appointed lieutenant governor has the final word on all decisions taken by the Delhi government.
“Basically, this is all political and nothing to do with alcohol,” said an industry source who did not want to be named. “The revenue from the awarding of licences generated a large amount of money for the AAP which it can use to fight the BJP in elections. The BJP wants to dry up the AAM’s funds, which is why it has attacked the new policy.”
Subhash Brar (name changed), who was awarded a licence in Greater Kailash, said he was shocked at the U-turn, but understood the AAP’s reversal in policy.
“It is faced with a CBI investigation, political pressure from the BJP and the fact that the lieutenant governor, the final authority, will take the BJP’s side. It made any fight futile,” he said.
Until 1 September, Delhi is to be a dry city and even then, it is not known exactly how many off-licences will reopen.