By P. Sreekumaran
THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: It is being described as the most unabashed and shocking surrender by a state government to the liquor lobby, in post-Independence India.
In a decision which has inflamed public opinion across the board, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) Government in the State has allowed 418 closed bars to start beer and wine parlours drastically watering down the State’s controversial liquor policy aiming at total prohibition over a period of 10 years. Besides, Sundays will no longer be dry days although the working hours of the bars have been reduced marginally.
Such is the sense of outrage created by the pusillanimous U-turn by the Oommen Chandy Government that even Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee(KPCC) President V. M. Sudheeran has deemed it fit to strongly condemn the shocking somersault by the Government and total surrender to the powerful liquor lobby.
In unprecedentedly strong words, the KPCC chief has accused the Government of sabotaging its liquor policy to suit the interests of the liquor lobby. In his statement issued a day after the State Government amended its liquor policy, Sudheeran blasted the amendment, made on the basis of a report by the Tourism and Labour Secretaries, which lacked credibility as it has been prepared obviously under the influence of ‘some persons’. Sources have it that Sudheeran came out with a strong statement after getting in touch with senior Congress leader A. K. Antony and other AICC leaders.
Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, however, defended the decision to amend the liquor policy. His justification for what is patently unjustifiable is: “You may have to take many practical decisions when you are in government. Those decisions may not sometimes be to your personal liking,” said Chandy in an obvious reference to the vehement opposition of the KPCC chief.
An immediate upshot of the decision will be a further nosedive in the already strained relations between the Chief Minister and the KPCC president. Coming days will, ion all probability, see a ratcheting up of the tension between the party and the government headed by it. There are reports that the A and I groups in the Congress, led by Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and the Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala respectively, are planning to lodge a complaint against Sudheeran with the Congress High Command. The KPCC chief’s stance will hurt the image of the government and is most unhelpful. That is the opinion of the groups which have never reconciled themselves to the appointment of Sudheeran as the state party president.
But, given the excellent equations Sudheeran enjoys with both Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Vice-president Rahul Gandhi, the move by Chandy and Chennithala is unlikely to succeed. It may be mentioned that an earlier complaint against Sudheeran had received a severe snub from Rahul Gandhi, who had advised the complainants belonging to both the A and I groups, to work in harmony with the KPCC chief!
Equally surprising has been the comparatively mild reaction of the most powerful ally of the Congress in the UDF, the Indian Union Muslim League(IUML). The IUML has not gone beyond criticizing the move to amend the liquor policy. All that it has done is issue a statement to the effect that the ‘significant dilution’ of the liquor policy will badly affect the Government’s image and credibility.
The rather soft reaction of the IUML is being ascribed to the Chief Minister’s success in taming the aggressive ally over the last few weeks. It must be mentioned that the arrest of PWD secretary T O Sooraj, the blue-eyed boy of the IUML, on corruption charges, had angered the party. Incidentally, the PWD portfolio is being held by V K Ibrahim Kunju, who belongs to the IUML. Reports have it that any further investigation against Sooraj could target the IUML minister himself. An exit from the UDF is a luxury the IUML cannot afford at this juncture as it is not welcome in the opposition Left Democratic Front(LDF) led by the CPI(M). The severely limited options with it accounts for the rather muted reaction of the IUML to the latest political developments.
It remains to be seen whether the high command will intervene to arrest the dangerous widening of the CM-KPCC chief rift. One thing can be said for sure. The U-turn on liquor policy will cause a big erosion in the support of the people, especially women, who had enthusiastically welcomed the Government’s original prohibition policy, which has now been altered to mollify the bar owners, who are literally holding the UDF Government hostage.
In fact, the working president of the Bar Owners Association(BOA), Biju Ramesh who had made the sensational allegation that Finance Minister and Kerala Congress(M) chief, K. M. Mani had accepted a Rs 1 crore bribe to ensure the reopening of closed bars, has threatened to make more damaging revelations against not only Mani but also against other Ministers. Ramesh has challenged Mani to file a defamation case against him. If Mani does so, he would come out with more clinching proof against the FM. Money had been given to four other ministers, Ramesh asserted, adding that the Government will collapse like a pack of cards if he disclosed the names of the ‘guilty’ ministers! It is believed that some Congress ministers are also among the bribed leaders.
An even more worrying development for the Congress and the UDF is the strong criticism voiced by various Christian church leaders. For instance, deputy moderator of the Church of South India(CSI), Bishop Thomas K. Oommen, has dubbed the Governments diluted liquor policy as a ‘black Christmas gift’. What is more, the Bishop squarely blamed the CM for sabotaging the liquor policy, adding that many improper deals were behind the government’s decision, which reinforces the suspicion that the policy has been changed because the government is scared of the liquor lobby.
The Churches’ strong opposition bodes ill for the UDF as it could cost the front badly in the upcoming local bodies elections next year and the State Assembly polls, due in 2016 May. The UDF is all set to lose the support of a substantial section of women as well. Significantly, a survey has shown that more than 90 per cent of women and 80 per cent of men had backed the original prohibition policy of the Government. But now that the Government has effected a cowardly policy reversal, it would cause a severe erosion in the support of women and the poor, who were the principal beneficiaries of the prohibition policy. (IPA Service)