There is a battle raging within the ruling Congress party in Kerala. And alcohol is at the heart of it. Ever since leading anti-liquor campaigner VM Sudheeran took over the reins of the state unit of the party in February, the fate of liquor bars had been hanging on the balance. Upfront about his intention to implement the Congress’ stated policy of introducing prohibition in a “phased manner”, he said the first step was to bring down the availability of liquor.
So, when the time came to renew the annual licences of the 752 bars in the state, Sudheeran smelt a chance to take that first step. On 31 March, the state excise department renewed the licences of only 334 bars, stating that the rest were not maintaining proper standards. Since 1 April, the 418 bars whose annual licences were not renewed, have remained shut.
The excise department’s decision was a departure from the norm in Kerala, where renewal of annual bar licences is a routine affair. Earlier, the licences used to be renewed automatically on the payment of the required fee, and allegedly a bribe, without any consideration of how the bars operate and the standards they maintain. Renewal of licences is reportedly a golden opportunity for excise officials to make some extra money on the side.
In defence of his stand, Sudheeran cited a 2011 report of the Comptroller and Auditor General, which had recommended that the licences of 418 bars in the state should not be renewed as they were operating without maintaining the expected standards. The High Court of Kerala, too, had directed the government to ensure proper standards and norms while issuing bar licences to hotels under various categories. Yet, when the licences of all the substandard bars were renewed for the fiscal year 2013-14, no political leader in the state raised a hue and cry. But that was before Sudheeran was appointed the president of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC).
Sudheeran took a principled stand on this sensitive issue in a state that leads the country in the per capita consumption of alcohol and where more than 20 percent of the government’s revenue comes from liquor sales. The total turnover from sale of liquor in Kerala is over 10,000 crore.
“Though the state gets revenue from the liquor sales, it has to spend more on healthcare because of rampant alcoholism,” says Sudheeran. “The menace is killing people and draining the financial resources of thousands of families. It has to be controlled. Throughout my political life, I have always taken a stand against the liquor mafia in Kerala. I never sought funds from them. The position I have taken is not for any personal gain, but to save Kerala from a great danger.”
The KPCC chief has nothing to lose by taking a tough stand on the renewal of bar licences as he has was never associated with the liquor barons and does not need to oblige them. It was because of him that Excise Minister K Babu, considered to be close to Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, was forced to direct the officials of his department not to renew the licences of 418 bars that were found to be lacking the minimum standards.
Babu, though, also went on to question Sudheeran’s stance as he suspected that the KPCC chief had a “hidden agenda”. He felt that Sudheeran was trying to play “Superman” in matters of governance.
Babu was not the only Congress leader to oppose Sudheeran on the bar licensing issue. KPCC vice-president VD Satheesan, who represents Paravur constituency in the Kerala Assembly, surprised many when he opposed Sudheeran for stirring a controversy over the renewal of the licences.
“The whole debate over bar licences was an unwanted controversy over nothing. It may help some people to build their image, but it is not going to help the government or the party,” Satheesan told TEHELKA. “The government has to uphold the Constitution and act democratically. We have taken an open view on the renewal of licences and discussed the issue at various levels.”
According to Kochi-based political commentator A Jayashanker, the controversy over the liquor policy may soon add to the woes of Chandy and his loyalists. “Sudheeran has taken a consistent stand against the liquor lobby controlling the government, but was never in a position to decide the policy,” says Jayashanker. “The moment he got a chance, he took advantage of the political situation to have his way. This could turn out to be beneficial for him in the future. The controversy over liquor policy may hit the Chandy government after the Lok Sabha election results are declared on 16 May.”
Though Sudheeran has detractors within the party and the government, many prominent communities in Kerala are with him on the liquor issue. The Church as well as Muslims oppose the consumption of liquor on religious grounds and so do not approve of the existing policy that allows the mushrooming of liquor dens in the state. Though many Christians are involved in the liquor business, Church leaders agree with Sudheeran’s view that the state should enforce prohibition in a phased manner. The Indian Union Muslim League, too, is in favour of prohibition.
Sensing trouble, Chandy, who is a teetotaller, avoided direct confrontation with the KPCC chief and delayed the decision on renewing the licences of the bars that were closed down. Clearly, he doesn’t want to bat on a dangerous political pitch. The issue was bothering him as many of his ministers reportedly have close connections with liquor barons, who are also a prominent source of funds for election campaigns. For instance, Revenue Minister Adoor Prakash is in the liquor business and two of his bars were closed after 31 March.
“Several Congress leaders work in league with the liquor mafia,” admits a Youth Congress leader on the condition of anonymity. “They give voice to the concerns of the liquor mafia. Sudheeran has exposed them with his stand, and I feel it will help improve the party’s image in the state.”
Mathew Kuzhalnadan, national secretary of the Youth Congress, also praises Sudheeran’s stance on the liquor issue. “We need to take hard decisions to ensure good governance. The current liquor policy helps the liquor barons to exploit the people. No one will die if the bars are closed forever. Instead, we can then take credit for saving millions of families from absolute poverty,” says Kuzhalnadan.
With opinions divided on the bar licensing issue, the KPCC met on 22 April to discuss the post-election scenario in the state. Soon after, a letter from former AICC secretary Shanimol Usman was leaked to the media, in which she had accused Sudheeran of denying her the right to express her views in party forums. Reportedly, Sudheeran had reprimanded her for making “baseless allegations” against Union Minister KC Venugopal.
Later, Sudheeran alleged that Usman was a pawn in the hands of the liquor lobby, which wanted to discredit him. Usman told TEHELKA that she was never a party to the bar licensing controversy and challenged Sudheeran to prove his allegation.
“Many Congress leaders have taken to washing dirty linen in public. This craze for cheap publicity will harm the party,” says a senior Congress leader.
The war over bars has turned into a clash of titans in the Congress party in Kerala. And the people are getting a kick out of watching the teetotaller warriors fight it out.