Wives revolt as free liquor flows at election time

India's leading political parties deny that they use booze to win over voters

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MUMBAI, India -- When Rajju Lal found her husband stumbling around in a drunken stupor on voting day in their Indian village five years ago, she corralled him at home and let him sleep it off on the floor. He never woke up.

Shortly after he died, she discovered a stash in the house of more than 20 bottles of whiskey and local spirits that he'd hoarded after receiving them from political parties seeking votes in their village in the northern state of Punjab.

"With my salary [as a maid] I'm barely able to provide food for my children," Ms. Lal, 34, said by phone from her home in Punjab's Hoshiarpur district, adding that her husband normally couldn't afford to buy alcohol on his wages as a day laborer hauling sacks of rice. "For a woman to lose her husband is the worst thing possible. And it's not just about the income -- everyone in society looks at you in a very bad way after that."

Ms. Lal is now featured in a video message by a Punjabi women's group that's campaigning to stop politicians from handing out liquor and drugs in the state, which tops India in opium and heroin consumption and comes second in alcohol sales. Punjab is an example of how Indian politicians are worsening substance abuse that is destroying families, even as they promise to open more drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers.

"It's out of control," Ranvinder Singh Sandhu, emeritus professor of sociology at Punjabi University in Patiala, said by phone, referring to substance abuse in the state. "In Punjab, taking a lot of alcohol is not seen as a bad thing -- it's simply a male characteristic. During the election period people get liquor for free, and that turns light drinkers into alcoholics."

Today is the last of nine rounds of voting in India's parliamentary election, with exit polls to be released tonight and results on May 16. Most opinion polls predict Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party will win the largest number of seats while falling short of a majority, with the ruling Congress party's popularity eroded by inflation, a slowing economy and corruption scandals.

Anita Sharma, 42, started the Belan Brigade a few months ago, named after the rolling pins used to flatten dough that members brandish during neighborhood protests against alcohol distribution in elections. The group travels to villages like the one Ms. Lal is from to encourage housewives to berate men who accept booze and demonstrate against party workers who distribute it.

Two days later in a working-class neighborhood less than a mile from where Ms. Sharma's group met, half a dozen men stood after 9 p.m. beside a flatbed mini-truck at a dimly lit intersection. Men from the neighborhood would walk up to the group and chat for a few minutes, and leave with one or two bottles of a local brand of whiskey.

"When the party guys give money and liquor, I'll take it," Jeet Kumar Deo said after he walked away from the group with a bottle of whiskey he said was given to him by campaigners. "But when I go into the booth tomorrow, I can vote for anyone I like. They have no control over that."

India's ruling Congress party and the BJP, projected to be the two largest parties, deny handing out liquor.


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