Much before the elections, Congress party and the government differed over the closure of 418 bars identified as “below standard”. Many questioned the intentions of the government. Going by that yardstick, questions were raised about the “standard” of government hospitals and roads. But the internal squabbles in the Congress kept the liquor pot boiling. While the state Congress party president V.M. Sudheeran insisted on shutting these bars, Chennithala, along with Chief Minister Oommen Chandy initially opposed such a blanket move. But as Sudheeran’s clamour for total closure became shriller, the warring factions within the party led by Chandy and Chennithala dramatically closed ranks and turned the tables on the party president by pulling down the shutters of all the 720 three- and four-star bars in the state. Stunned by the government move, powerful bar owners, who are the major financiers of all political parties, took out the skeletons from their cupboards one by one. Finance Minister and leader of one of the major factions of the Kerala Congress, K.M. Mani, despite determined resistance, became the first casualty of the “bar bribe scam”. The allegation that Mani took Rs 1 crore from the bar owners and that he keeps a money counting machine at his home got some sort of legitimacy across households in the state. The then Excise Minister, K. Babu of the Congress too came under the scanner following charges that he and his coterie took Rs 10 crore for reducing excise charges on bars. Though Babu resigned temporarily, he managed to get an injunction from the court and continued as minister. At that time itself, Kerala Congress had accused Chandy of shielding Babu while sacrificing Mani at the altar of “transparency”. This has finally now snowballed into Kerala Congress walking out of the alliance and threatening to join hands with the LDF.
Leaders of the CPM, which leads the LDF, had been advocating opening the shutters of closed bars even during the election campaign and feel this was one of the plus points other than UDF’s alleged corruption that helped them romp back to power.
It is in this context that many in the UDF feel that Chennithala, through the interview, has deliberately fuelled LDF moves to scuttle the much trumpeted liquor policy. Naturally, Sudheeran, who is hanging on to the party’s state leadership by the grace of the Gandhis, was the first to denounce Chennithala and insist there was no question of the party abandoning its avowed policy. “There is no need to review the liquor policy. It was adopted unanimously by the party,” he said. The other major partner, Indian Union Muslim League, too said there was no need to reconsider the policy. “The policy was formulated by the UDF and not just by the Congress,” party state general secretary K.P.A. Majeed pointed out. However, Oommen Chandy cleverly wriggled out of the controversy by not commenting on it when confronted by media persons. Amidst the uproar, Chennithala’s reaction was typical of all politicians these days. He argued that his comments were misinterpreted. What he meant, Chennithala claimed, was that the UDF failed to reap electoral benefits from such a bold step against the all-powerful liquor lobby. This cannot be termed as opposition to the UDF liquor policy, he contended.
Whatever may be the intentions, Chennithala literally handed over a stick to the LDF to beat the UDF with. No wonder the remarks by the Leader of the Opposition were music to the new Minister for Tourism, who has been pushing the case against the liquor policy ever since coming to power. The minister, A.C. Moideen has been saying that the tourism sector took a beating from the liquor policy. According to him, many conferences were cancelled and the flow of foreign tourists dropped considerably. “A wrong perception has been created outside the state that Kerala is a prohibition zone. I have no qualms in admitting that the liquor policy badly affected the tourism sector. And I stand for a change in the policy,” he told a local news channel. The minister also stated that he would push for a policy change when the matter comes up for discussion in the Cabinet. “We need a change in the policy. At least the tourism destinations in the state should be exempted from the purview of the policy,” Moideen had said.
It is a fact that an average Malayali likes to have his drinks at the end of the day, and preferably away from the confines of home. It is this majority that came out in hordes to vote for the LDF.
With the LDF making a legitimate case for easing restrictions on bars, the UDF policy is becoming the casualty. Ever since the closure of bars, use of narcotics has increased alarmingly among the youth. Many say that it is the use of narcotics that has so far helped Kerala, which is otherwise notorious for illicit brewing and subsequent tragedies. The CPM has been attributing its victory in the elections as an endorsement of its policy of abstinence and not prohibition as a cure to the ever increasing followers of Bacchus in the state. It is a fact that an average Malayali likes to have his drinks at the end of the day, and preferably away from the confines of home. It is this majority that came out in hordes to vote for the LDF. The Church and the constituents of the UDF may not agree. But the fact is that the ranks of those who are demanding opening of bars are swelling by the day. As Onam, the biggest festival of Kerala, is knocking on the door, the state Consumer Fed is toying with the idea of online sale of liquor through its limited outlets. The Tourism Department is planning opening bars in prime tourist spots. Meanwhile, LDF is facing some uneasy questions too. Where is the guarantee that the liquor lobby, which generously “bribed” Mani and company, would not do the same with those in the LDF government? Or was an understanding reached well before the elections? If the aim is to sell more liquor and earn revenue, where and how abstinence comes into the picture? This Onam too will witness another bumper sale but will the cheer last for long?