Kerala alcohol ban: Chandy forced to water down an insincere liquor policy

Whether it's the victory of the hugely powerful liquor lobby or the terminator gene inherent in his highly impractical policy, Kerala chief minister Oomen Chandy’s lofty ideas for total prohibition have come a cropper barely three months since they were announced.

In a huge departure from his earlier stand, which appeared to have been cast in stone, Chandy announced on Monday that his cabinet will take a look at the practical changes required in the government’s liquor policy. So, the first effort to water down the policy has begun and reportedly the allies, including the Muslim League, which is a strong votary of prohibition, will support these changes.

Despite the climbdown, the chief minister still maintains that the decision to have a liquor-free state in ten years stays and what will happen are minor changes for practical reasons. The changes include reversal of the decision to make Sundays dry days and decide on beer and wine parlours and liquor licenses for clubs. The beer and wine parlours as well as clubs have been untouched by the policy so far. In all probability, liquor will soon be available on Sundays, licenses will be issued for beer and wine parlours, and clubs will continue to serve liquor.

 Kerala alcohol ban: Chandy forced to water down an insincere liquor policy

Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. PTI

The cabinet will also look at the impact study done by the labour and tourism secretaries. In all probability, there will be further watering down because it’s public knowledge that leaders of both the sectors are extremely upset with the disastrous impact the policy can have on them. Tourism and information technology are the mainstay of Kerala’s industrial development.

In a letter to the chief minister, Group of Technology Companies Kerala, an organisation of the IT companies at the Technopark in Thiruvananthapuram, had said that “no IT company of consequence will plan to set up their facilities in a state, which has such archaic regulations. The impact will be equally severe in tourism and hospitality sectors. Corporate conferences, which is a major source of revenue for the hospitality and tourism sectors, will be badly impacted”. Hotel and bar owners’ associations claim that several conferences planned in the state have been cancelled because of the new policy.

The change of mind also may have political reasons as the critics of the government allege. Incensed by the decision of the government, the liquor lobby, which funds both the economy as well as politics in the state, has declared a virtual war on the government and they went about it strategically. While it fought the government decision in courts, politically, they singled out KM Mani, the state finance minister and the senior most politician in the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF). Mani is also the leader of the influential Kerala Congress, a Syrian Christian party.

The working president of Kerala Bar Owners’ Association, Biju Ramesh, alleged that 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 instalments at the minister’s home. Although Chandy defended Mani with considerable vehemence, the state vigilance department had to file an FIR against Mani and an investigation is currently on.

Mani’s party and his followers were furious and they suspected a conspiracy to disarm Mani, who was getting cozy with the CPM-led opposition. It was widely speculated that Mani acted coy with the CPM, when it tried to induce him with chief ministership if he switched camps. The allegation by the liquor lobby not only made him an unwanted element, but also made him a target of the CPM, both inside and outside the state assembly.

The speculation now is that Chandy is willing to climb down regarding the liquor policy to placate the liquor lobby so that it will go soft on Mani. The opposition has already found such a motive in this decision. That the Muslim league and other allies will support the cabinet decision also hints at the helplessness of Mani and Chandy. This is certainly a victory, although a minor one, for the liquor lobby.

The most significant aspect of the latest decision is that it waters down the government’s much celebrated prohibition plan. The decision for total prohibition was anachronistic because liquor is part of Kerala’s socio-cultural landscape - in 2013-14 alone, the state sold 240 lakh cases of indian made foreign liquor. More over, it contributes immensely to the state exchequer - about Rs 6000 crore a year. Ministers in the cabinet had warned that it will wreck the state’s finances.

Chandy’s announcement on prohibition did not arise out of any principle, but out of the insecurity caused by VM Sudheeran, the president of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC). Sudheeran had been in near political exile for about two decades and had recently been appointed the KPCC president by the Congress high command. He is out on a mission to create a political space for himself by heavily relying on his image as a principled leader. Chandy announced the prohibition plan when it was certain that Sudheeran will upstage him on the issue if he hadn’t acted ahead of the latter.

Chandy on Monday also made it public that Sudheeran has strongly opposed the decision to make changes to the liquor policy. Chandy has been moderately successful in reining him in by pre-empting him on the plan and then deciding to water it down with the support of the allies. But Sudheeran will continue to be a thorn in the flesh for Chandy because obviously, he’s aiming big.

(EOM)

Updated Date: Dec 17, 2014 20:54:43 IST