Kerala alcohol policy: How Oommen Chandy's total ban plan is eating up his government

The total prohibition plan of Oommen Chandy government in Kerala that attracted global media attention a few months ago has turned out to be a case study on how not to frame policies out of political expediency.

The liquor policy has led to loss of revenue, court cases, pushback from Kerala’s lifeline industries such as tourism and IT, and serious allegations of corruption that have made life impossible for Chandy. The worst is a mega scandal involving the finance minister KM Mani who is charged of “making money using the state budget”.

The charges against Mani had been mounted by a section of the liquor contractors a few weeks ago. The working president of the Bar Hotel Owners’Association, Biju Ramesh, had alleged that its members had given Mani Rs 5 crore for opening the bars that had been closed by the government. Under pressure, the government had ordered a vigilance enquiry. Mani, however, brushed off the allegations as baseless even as Chandy came under pressure from the opposition to drop him from his ministry.

 Kerala alcohol policy: How Oommen Chandys total ban plan is eating up his government

Reuters image.

Early this week, Ramesh dropped another bomb. He released two audio clips to support his claim. In one, he is speaking to a former minister and a key member of the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) alliance, Balakrishna Pillai. Pillai, a veteran politician, is heard endorsing Ramesh’s allegations. He even adds more charges against Mani saying that the latter had taken big sums of money from jewellers and mill owners as well. Pillai advises Ramesh to push for a CBI enquiry. He even says that he had informed Chandy about Mani’s alleged money making ways.

In the other clip, Ramesh speaks to PC George, chief whip of the UDF, and second-in-command in Mani’s party. Although he doesn’t say anything against Mani, his tone and tenor seem to suggest that he agrees with Ramesh’s charges.

Local media also reported the existence of additional audio clips in which the bar owners are heard discussing, at their association meeting, the details of how they collected and handed over the money to Mani. One of them even said that Mani has a machine to count currency notes at home. Some of the association members, however, distanced from the allegations. Ramesh said that he has handed over all the audio evidence to the vigilance department.

The Mani debacle has landed the Chandy government in absolute mess. Chandy cannot survive without Mani’s party, the Kerala Congress, and hence he has been doing everything to protect him even as dissenting voices are rising from his party itself. A senior party member opened a new front to fight Mani saying that he shouldn’t be allowed to present the next budget as he is under a cloud of suspicion. There are also unconfirmed reports that Mani has threatened to pull out of the government.

To make matters worse, Mani’s party wants the UDF to expel Pillai from the alliance. Pillai, in turn, has threatened that if he is thrown out, he will further expose the government.

Meanwhile, the CPM led Left Democratic Front (LDF) has threatened that it is going to war on the issue. The LDF will boycott Mani and will not allow him to present the state budget. The Left leaders have asked Mani to resign instead of facing the ignominy of leaving under pressure. They recalled how another UDF minister, PK Kunhalikkutty of the Muslim League, had resisted the pressure of the opposition in a sex scandal and finally gave up a few years ago.

For Chandy, the Mani episode is a tough test of his survival skills. He runs the coalition government on a wafer thin majority. The general perception is that the state government is controlled by the parties of Mani and Kunhalikkutty and Chandy has very little room to manouvre.

Meanwhile, Mani has become the target of widespread public derision. A movie director, Ashiq Abu, sparked off a social media campaign to ridicule Mani by symbolically contributing Rs 500. In jest, he said that people should collect some more for “Mani sir” who doesn’t have enough money to feed himself. The hashtag (#entevaka500) he started immediately began trending and led to a flood of messages on Facebook and Twitter. The ridicule also spilled on to the streets with people organising collection drives for Mani. On Thursday, media reports said that the Postal Department in Mani’s hometown is flooded with money orders meant for the minister. Reportedly, money orders worth Rs 15,000 have piled up at the post office.

Another blow for Chandy came from the Supreme Court. Hearing a petition by some bar owners from the state, the Court on Thursday chided the state government for filing appeals against the interim orders of the Kerala High Court on the issue. The bench said that it was not the job of the Supreme Court to dispose the cases that were under the consideration of the High Court. The SC also questioned the lack of uniformity of the liquor policy.

The sum total of Chandy’s liquor policy is that it has achieved nothing other than reducing Mani, the senior most UDF politician with five decades of legislative experience, to a symbol of corruption and ridicule, and inviting instability for the government. The policy was not borne out of genuine desire to reduce alcohol consumption in the state, but to stall the ambitions of the president of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC), VM Sudheeran, who was pushing for prohibition to shore up his image.

Chandy, who had acted literally on his feet to block Sudheeran, might have thought that he was too clever by half. Now, he is clueless as to how to extricate himself from this mess. It’s possible that he might sink and take the UDF government along with him.

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Updated Date: Jan 23, 2015 16:46:17 IST