When the Congress-led UDF had to announce under compulsion its 10-year prohibition plan in December 2014, the biggest beneficiary was the Marxists-led Opposition front, the LDF, because they got the state’s powerful liquor lobby to bat for them. In what appeared to be a note-of-thanks, the CPM strategically chose to be lenient on the liquor lobby and said that they didn’t subscribe to the principle behind UDF’s prohibition plan.
CPM leaders, including its chief ministerial prospect Pinarayi Vijayan, said that the party believed in abstinence and not prohibition. If it came to power, said Vijayan, then it would promote abstinence.
The unspoken promise or the subtle connotation of their message was that the LDF would replace UDF’s liquor policy with its abstinence-only version, which in practical terms would mean a return of the bars that had been closed down. Leaked conversations carried by the local media indicated that the liquor lobby leaders shared this informed-optimism with the state’s bar owners. They apparently were sure that they would get their businesses back if the LDF came to power.
However, when Chief Minister Oommen Chandy made prohibition one of his poll-planks and alleged that the CPM had a deal with the liquor lobby, its National General Secretary Sitaram Yechury intervened. Not to miss out on the extra votes that prohibition might bring, he said his party wouldn’t open the bars that had been shut down. The matter seemed to have ended there.
Strangely, on Tuesday, when the LDF announced its manifesto, CPM leader Vaikom Vishwan, who spoke to the media, brought back the ambiguity. When asked about the possibility of the bars reopening, he didn’t echo Yechury’s clear resolve. He even hinted that Yechury didn’t know the reality in the state. Vishwan added a new exit-route for the party when he said that the UDF had in fact never closed down the bars because the latter still functioned as beer and wine parlours. What he chose to hide, however, was that the liquor-bars had to shift to beer and wine because they couldn’t sell hard liquor. The licensing procedures for the two were different too.
The million-dollar question still didn’t go away. Will the CPM acquiesce to the liquor lobby or not? Will they open the bars that had been shut down by Chandy or not?
To skirt the question further, and to retain its policy-space, the CPM had one more trick up its sleeve. It said that Chandy didn’t close down bars, but was allowing more. Its reference was to six new bar-licenses issued to new five star hotels. It was clearly twisting facts because the new licenses didn’t violate Chandy’s liquor policy: five-star hotels were exempted from prohibition. By issuing licences to five-star hotels, he was only sticking to his stated policy.
Although they have kept quite since Yechury’s clarification, CPM spokespersons are now speaking in multiple voices to confound the situation and to keep the liquor lobby, which also claims a vote-base of 2.5 lakh workers across the state, with them. During prime time TV discussions, party men and surrogates are dodging the direct question and are speaking about how abstinence is a better idea than prohibition. Of course, there is no shortage of examples of how prohibition is a crude idea.
In the last 15 months, nothing brought more misery to Chandy than his liquor policy because the bar owners, who suddenly lost their money-minting business despite their generous patronage of the ruling front leaders, bayed for his blood. Chandy and his government never recovered from the chain reaction the liquor lobby triggered and sustained. Two ministers, including the senior most member of the cabinet, lost their jobs and faced investigations. The image of both the Congress and its allies were damaged irreversibly.
Apparently, the same liquor lobby also played behind the scenes in the “solar scam” in which a woman threatened to swallow the entire cabinet with her allegations of sex and money. Starting in a well-calibrated way, she became belligerent by the day and finally even accused Chandy of sexual abuse. Whether there was any substance in her allegations or not, the woman, who had no apparent sources of income and who was termed by the Kerala High Court as untrustworthy, was obviously fronting for Chandy’s detractors. The Congress charged that some liquor barons conspired with her.
Whether it was by design or chance, the sole beneficiary of this twin-torpedo attacks were the CPM and the LDF. If they win the May assembly elections, which they are likely to, they have to at least partly thank the liquor lobby and the principal character of the solar scam.
The solar scam character can be easily ignored, but the liquor lobby will certainly look for its payback. Yechury says no, but his state leaders aren’t sure. Their manifesto has enough ambiguity to play with.
If the LDF comes to power, its first major challenge will be when the same liquor lobby starts asking for a return of favours. Chandy, possibly out of power then, can at least console himself with the last laugh.