Campaign Cocktail: How Hooch Swings the Rural Vote


Campaign Cocktail: How Hooch Swings the Rural Vote

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Rakesh Nishad is Unnao’s busiest man these days. He is in a flurry of activity, running around the veranda of his house, making calls, cutting spot deals, and ensuring things are done and ready in time for the election. The village will go to polls soon, so time is of the essence.

Nishad is not a contesting candidate or a party worker. He is not an electoral office worker. But around election time, his job is more important than any of these roles combined. The lean and greying rickshaw-puller is one of Unnao’s most sought-after men this season. He has parked his rickshaw and has taken up temporary residence at the dingy and dark shed which serves as an illegal stills (a DIY distillation plant), where Nishad manufactures kachi sharab or hooch for the village.

Hooch is popular around these parts, not only because it is cheap, but because of the nature of its high. It’s quick-fix escape from the worries of the world, unlike regular bottled alcohol where intoxication is slow to set in. Kachi sharab acquires a rare potency during elections in the hinterland. And in Uttar Pradesh, imbibing is as central to the season as campaigning. The moonshine is intended to lure rural voters, especially those with no fixed source of income, who form a large mass of the electorate. Hooch becomes an integral part of that lifestyle, if only to neutralise the hardness of the physical labour the bulk of our population is involved in. Although money is a constraint, throughout the year, hooch is consumed in smaller quantities.

But during election season, it is as if the floodgates are thrown open. Political parties order in bulk and sell the concoction in small plastic pouches at throwaway prices, between ₹10-15. The buyers are mostly men, the heads of the house, who instruct the rest of their family to vote for a particular candidate. Besides hooch the voters are also enticed by cash, transportation allowance, and biryani through the campaign until voting day. But it is alcohol that remains the big driver in electing governments.

As moonshine flows free through the dusty streets of UP, the votes presumably stack up for whatever political party has been able to influence the voters. Whether it is the gram panchayat elections, assembly, or Lok Sabha polls, all political parties can do with shots of liquid courage.

Nishad is a small cog in this giant wheel. The 38-year-old resident of Murava village receives an order from the close associates of political leaders, muscleman, and other bigshots in the area. An advance is paid and Nishad fires up his illegal stills, located among a clump of babool trees, in the wee hours of the day to avoid suspicion.

For people like Nishad, the sole breadwinner in his family, hooch-making is yet another way to keep surviving.

“Once we get the advance, we take a minimum of three days to produce the hooch,” says Nishad. “Good quality liquor is not made in less than five to seven days. But to ensure timely supply, we do it in three days.” He mixes the molasses or grain with jaggery, fruit, spices, and denatured spirit, and adds a splash of battery acid for the extra kick. The ingredients are first boiled in big round pots for hours and then strained. Nishad and his family of six, are able to produce about 10 litres a day.

Once prepared, the hooch is taken away in recycled dalda jars and tyre tubes. During elections, the hooch is distributed for free after sunset. And demand for people like Nishad skyrockets. Even though this is not an organised market, the Election Commission has seized over 14 lakh litres of hooch during this election season.

For people like Nishad, the sole breadwinner in his family, hooch-making is yet another way to keep surviving. He says he picked up the “science” of producing hooch from his late father and has been involved with the manufacturing since he was a child. “Kachi sharab has sent me to jail a couple of times,” he tells me, his eyes bulging, “but the extra few rupees help me provide better food, clothes, and security to my family.” He earns only ₹250-300 a day pulling the rickshaw, but the hooch fetches upwards of ₹1,500.

Last July, hooch killed over 40 people in UP’s Etah and Farukkhabad districts, leading to the arrest of kingpin Shripal Lodh. More than 1,600 people were then arrested across the state, leading to the usual game of blame the opposing political party. But this time, the Unnao SP Neha Pandey, is trying her best to stay vigilant, even though an army of Nishads is ranged against her. “I’ve cleared scores of them ever since I took charge,” she tells me. Pandey’s team routinely acts on tips and have so far seized more than 30,000 litres of hooch. “But these people manufacture hooch inside their homes and are able to give the police a slip.”

Back in Muravva, I ask Nishad to show me the stills, located inside a makeshift patchwork of a tent in the compound of his home, hidden from the curious eye. He suddenly grows defensive. “I’m not the only man in Unnao who manufactures hooch,” he reasons. “There are several hundred like me in Uttar Pradesh.” So long as the election cycle churns, the hearth fires of men like Nishad, will keep burning. After that, it will be time to return to the rickshaw and back-breaking labour.