As the election cauldron is heating up, the two major contenders for power in Kerala—the Congress led United Democratic Front and the CPM led Left Democratic Front—seem to be unsure what sort of concoction is brewing for them. The persisting inner contradictions of both the fronts and their unsteady, swaggering stand on the contentious liquor policy in the state are pointers to this. Meanwhile, the third player in the arena this time around, the BJP-led NDA is hoping to break bread with the hitherto unfriendly electorate of the state.
Early this week, the UDF found itself in a real mess over its much trumpeted liquor-free Kerala by sanctioning bar licences to six five-star hotels, of which four were only three-star hotels till recently. As per UDF policy, only five-star hotels can be provided bar licences. While Chief Minister Oommen Chandy justified the move as going by the rule book, doubts were immediately raised about the government’s avowed stand to bring total prohibition in phases. Interestingly, another 10 three-star hotels have upgraded themselves to five-star standards and are waiting for licences. Chandy and his much maligned government was once again opening the Pandora’s Box, said critics. They are justified in saying so, as another 100 odd three- and four-star hotels are in the process of upgrading themselves. It is anyone’s guess what happens when they too demand bar licences. Chandy, who tried to put the onus of sanctioning star status to the hotels on the Central government, was immediately rebutted by Union minister Rajiv Pratap Rudy, who is camping in Kerala for electioneering. Rudy made it clear that sanctioning of bar licences and any policy on liquor is a state subject.
As an afterthought, the government did an about-turn and came out with an announcement that five-star hotels in the state will no more be granted bar licences. However, those granted permission the previous day would not be affected, Chandy clarified. He also promised that the government would come out with more stringent laws to prevent more star hotels from acquiring bar licences by moving court. This is just an eyewash, as the government’s term is ending on 30 May. A precedent has been set and going by the law of the land, it is obvious that others too could obtain licences by moving either the high court or even the Supreme Court. The liquor lobby has the wherewithal and the political clout for that. D. Rajkumar, president of the Kerala Bar Hotels Association, made this obvious when he stated that hundreds of crores of rupees have been invested by hoteliers trying to get their hotels upgraded so that they could get bar licences.
The sincerity of the UDF’s liquor policy was in doubt from the very beginning. The campaign for such a policy was first initiated by the then newly appointed Pradesh Congress Committee chief, V.M. Sudheeran. He started off by clamouring for the closure of 400 odd bars for lack of basic standards—not for selling liquor. They were badly maintained without any hygienic environment or wash rooms, said Sudheeran. Initially, Chandy and company, who had made their displeasure known over the imposition of Sudheeran as party president by the high command, tried to ignore him. But as the shrill rhetoric became louder and the pressure mounted, the wily Chandy sprang a surprise by turning the tables on Sudheeran and saying why only 400 odd bars, why not the entire lot of 730 bars? So as a result of what began as an ego clash and a fight for territorial supremacy within the party, the shutters of all three- and four-star bars were pulled down; and Chandy took the credit for ushering in a campaign to reduce Kerala’s liquor consumption, the highest in the country. It became an instant hit with women, who were at the receiving end of excess drinking. “It has been one of the most cunning acts by Oommen Chandy,” says Vellappalli Natesan, general secretary of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Sangh and the man who should be credited for the evolution of a “third front” in the state.
“The LDF is equally adept at hoodwinking the masses,” says Natesan. He would know, for he is known for his and the Ezhava community’s closeness to the Left movement in the state before he fell out with both the fronts over the “appeasement of minorities at the price of majority Hindus”.
The Left, whose coffers were filled regularly by the liquor lobby over the years, has been against a total ban on liquor. Their contention was that it was not practical and would pave way to disasters from consumption of adulterated liquor, which is something all too familiar in the state. Instead, they advocated launching an awareness campaign about the evils of drinking. But they could not spell out how to go about it. As the state leadership mouthed various opinions and seeing the UDF capitalising on this dilly-dallying, CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury came out with a public statement pledging to follow UDF’s liquor policy and promised not to open closed bars at any cost. But the state leadership knows where the shoe pinches and hence maintained a stoic silence on liquor in its manifesto released this week. All that Pinarayi Vijayan, CPM strongman and former state secretary, would say was that the state unit would take a call on Yechury’s promise once the party comes to power, which, of course, he hopes to head. Till then, the party contended, it would campaign for a ban on liquor sale from state-owned vends to those under 23. It is not known how the party arrived at this figure. The NDA too is not in an enviable position regarding liquor. Its main ally, the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena and its founding body, the SNDP, profess what Sree Narayana Guru had taught. “Liquor is poison, make it not, sell it not, drink it not,” Guru had preached. It may be a hard call to practice in this modern ever-changing world dictated by consumerism. But since popular and powerful tribal leader C.K. Janu too decided to throw her weight behind the NDA, a time will come for the alliance to make clear-cut decisions on its liquor policy. Adivasis in the state are the worst affected by liquor and subsequent governments cared a damn about their plight, which Janu hopes to change by contesting from Wayanad’s Sultan Bathery constituency. It is an uphill task. Making inroads into the enemy camp may be possible but conquering the enemy is different. Same is the case with the liquor demon. Who can seal the bottle with the genie/spirit?