Liquor has become a major topic of debate in the coming Assembly election in Kerala with the United Democratic Front (UDF) government granting licence to six new five-star hotels and the Opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF) shying away from stating its stand on the phased prohibition initiated by the former.
While the UDF has sought to clear the apprehension in the minds of prohibitionists by promising stricter norms for issuing new bar licence to five-star hotels, the Opposition is trying to keep both the prohibitionists and the boozers in good humour by adopting an ambiguous stand on prohibition.
Unveiling the UDF election manifesto, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said they will not grant bar licence if any four-star hotels tried to misuse the provision in the policy by upgrading them to five-star hotels. He also promised tougher provisions if the central government grants five-star status to new hotels coming up in the state.
The manifesto has promised a ‘liquor-free Kerala’ in 10 years. The policy change was prompted by a huge hue and cry over the government’s decision to grant bar licence to six new five star hotels in the midst of the election.
While prohibitionists viewed this as an attempt to water down the policy, Chandy’s colleagues in the UDF feared it would deprive them the support it got from non-drinkers, especially the women, from shutting down all 730 bars in the three- and four-star category.
An urgent meeting of the UDF leaders held prior to the release of the manifesto mounted pressure on the government to make amends. They warned Chandy that the action would open flood gates as it would encourage more four-star hotels to secure five-star status. There have been reports that 14 hotel owners had already started the process.
The government had exempted five-star bars thinking that liquor served there would not be affordable to the common man. However, many of these hotels made it affordable to the ordinary boozers by making use of a provision in the Excise rules to open ‘Janata counters’.
The UDF leaders feared that four-star hotels were trying to get five-star status as it would allow them to continue their business through 'janata counters'. This, they feared, will lead to proliferation of liquor that the UDF had tried to check by shutting down all the bars in the three-star and four-star category from October 2014 and phased closure of retail outlets in the next 10 years. .
Sensing the danger, the Chief Minister made quick correction. With this, the UDF hopes to regain the support of non-drinkers, especially the women, who had lauded the policy which evolved from their decision not to renew the bar licences of 438 hotels found sub-standard by various agencies, including the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election.
The LDF-led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), on the other hand, has tried to placate both the sections by adopting an ambiguous stand on the UDF policy in its poll manifesto. Though the manifesto has clearly described alcoholism as a big menace in Kerala, it does not propose to carry forward the UDF’s initiative to fight it by reducing availability of liquor.
Instead, it has cheered the boozers and bar owners, who had rattled the ruling front by raising bribery charges against several ministers and UDF leaders, by resisting pressures from all quarters, including the CPM General Secretary Sitaram Yechury to state that they will not reopen the closed bars if they come to power.
Yechury had intervened in the issue after the Catholic Church came out with an appeal to defeat those who are trying to promote liquor. This has not deterred local LDF leaders, who have dismissed Yechury’s suggestion saying that he was not aware of the realities in the state.
Is this an indication of the LDF’s thinking that prohibition will not bring in more votes in a state like Kerala, which is the top consumer of liquor in the country? The victory they got in the 1996 election, which was fought by UDF on the strength of a ban on country liquor (arrack), supports the thinking.
The LDF was faced with the same question in 1996. Though they went to the polls by not answering the question whether they would reopen the closed arrack shops if they come to power, the people voted the LDF to power. Curiously, the LDF made no attempt to reopen the closed arrack shops after they assumed power.
The LDF has more reason to believe that they will get more gains by not supporting the UDF’s policy, which they believe was borne out of political intrigues. Moreover, they feel that the prohibitionists would weigh the flourishing of illicit liquor mafia and the huge rise in drugs consequent to the closure of bars while exercising their franchise.
“Our policy is to free Kerala from the clutches of all type of intoxicants. We do not think this is possible through prohibition, which has failed wherever it was implemented. We will fight the menace by launching a mass movement against not only liquor, but also drugs and other intoxicants,” says LDF convenor Vaikom Viswam.
However, the ruling front and the prohibitionists are not convinced. They have viewed the ambiguity in its stand as a ploy to reopen the bars if they come to power. The chief minister even suspects a secret pact between the CPM and the bar owners behind this.
His charge is significant in the light of allegations that the bar owners had given Rs 10 crores to the CPM for dislodging his government.
The Madhya Virudha Samithi of Kerala Catholic Bishops Council (KCBC), which has been spearheading a sustained campaign against liquor, has also expressed suspicion in the LDF stand. Samithi general secretary Fr T J Antony said there was genuine concern among the people over the LDF’s refusal to state its position on the closed bars.
“We have no political bias towards the UDF. However, we consider the steps taken by their government are positive. We do not believe that liquor consumption can be brought down without reducing availability. The LDF, which has pointed out shortcomings in the policy, is duty-bound to come out with an alternative,” Fr Antony told the Firstpost.
He said that the Church does not share the LDF’s view that the alcohol menace can be fought through abstention. “We have been trying to create awareness against alcoholism for several decades now, but it has not brought down liquor consumption in the state,” he added.
When asked whether the Church will stand by its earlier appeal to defeat those promoting liquor, the priest asked how anybody could expect people to show their chest when their enemy brandishes a gun. He said that the people of Kerala were enlightened enough to distinguish between their friends and foes.