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Forget financial losses, Chandy faces political crisis over prohibition plans

When Kerala Chief Minister Oomen Chandy announced his staggered plan for total prohibition in September, he certainly would have thought about the financial crisis the move would lead to. But neither him nor any of the state’s political parties would have anticipated a political crisis that the historic decision would precipitate.

This is exactly what’s happening in Kerala right now. Chandy’s ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) is in a crisis. What’s more, a mini-crisis is also brewing in the opposition CPM camp.

 Forget financial losses, Chandy faces political crisis over prohibition plans

Kerala Chief Minister Oomen Chandy. Image courtesy PIB

The reason is the retaliation by the liquor lobby. After fighting court cases questioning the state’s new liquor policy (read prohibition), which allowed for liquor sales only in five star hotel bars and the government owned beverages corporation outlets, they are hitting back with a vengeance. On Friday last, the working president of Kerala Bar Owners’ Association, Biju Ramesh, alleged that the state Finance Minister KM Mani had demanded Rs five crore to keep open the 418 bars that the government had closed early this year. He alleged that out of the Rs 5 crore, one crore had been paid in two installments at the minister’s home.

Although the charge was made by Ramesh and was aimed at Mani, the immediate suspect in the political circles was Oomen Chandy. Mani’s furious supporters alleged that it was a political conspiracy while the CPM leaders said that the only beneficiary of such a move was Chandy. Without naming him, some of Mani supporters did hint that it was a handiwork of Chandy.

Chandy was at a loss as to how to extricate himself from this sudden conspiracy-mess and what he did to fight off the crisis drowned him further. While the opposition demanded investigation on Ramesh’s charges, he said given Mani’s reputation nobody would every believe in such an allegation and there was no need for any probe. What he forgot under pressure was that his government was duty-bound, according to a latest Supreme Court verdict, to register a complaint and to do the initial probe within a certain period.

While Chandy and the Congress were reeling under pressure, the CPM-veteran and former opposition leader VS Achuthanandan harnessed the controversy to clip the wings of his state leadership. As soon as Ramesh made the allegation, he issued a letter to the state vigilance department asking for a probe. Legally, the government couldn’t ignore his letter and it was forced to act by forming a probe team, which further infuriated Mani’s camp. Achuthanandan followed up on his letter by asking for a CBI investigation since he didn’t trust a state government agency.

Achuthanandan’s move was a calculated jolt to the CPM secretary Pinarayi Vijayan and his camp. The party leadership in the state, dominated by him and his acolytes, has been aiming for Mani’s defection from the UDF to the Left Democratic Front (LDF) for a long while now. CPM has been extremely weak in the Syrian Christian belt and its efforts to woo the Church has never worked. The only way to get the Christian votes is to get Mani and his Kerala Congress on its side.

Vijayan and his followers, therefore, always spared Mani, whenever they attacked the UDF government and missed no opportunity to stoke the latter’s latent chief ministerial ambitions. Even as Mani insisted that he had no chief ministerial wish and that he had no affinity for the LDF, the CPM leaders kept playing the game. The allegation by Ramesh was a great opportunity for the CPM to encourage Mani to secede from the UDF by projecting it as a conspiracy by Chandy to reign him in. In fact, the CPM played its cards on predictable lines and insinuated that it could have been a mischief played by Chandy.

Under normal circumstances, the CPM and the LDF should have used the opportunity to attack the UDF and Mani, but CPM dragged its feet for five days. Achuthanandan, outplayed the CPM leaders, knowing full well what was cooking, but the party leadership finally dismissed his demands. Instead of a vigilance or CBI probe, the party on Wednesday said an official probe under the supervision of a court alone will bring out the truth. Perhaps, as a face-saving strategy, it said that Mani should step aside till the probe is complete. What was noteworthy was that the party was certainly soft on Mani.

The turmoil is not going to easily blow over. The state government will indeed have to investigate the allegation, which will further provoke the Mani camp. PC George, a close Mani aide and the UDF chief whip in the assembly, has already sounded alarm bells for Chandy by claiming that he also has a lot to reveal.

So, in the end, Chandy’s prohibition, which was nothing but a politically expedient move to checkmate his party chief in the state, has led to chaos everywhere. With nothing to lose, the Bar Association will not lie low. Consequently, the political parties will have to pay a price.

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Updated Date: Nov 06, 2014 22:07:20 IST