The Kerala High Court’s decision to uphold the liquor policy has come as cheers to the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government, which is embroiled in the bar-bribe fraud. A division bench of the HC ratified the new liquor policy, paving the way for the closure of all bar hotels in the state except those that are classified as five-star.
The division bench comprising Justices KT Sankaran, Babu Mathew and P Joseph gave the verdict in favour of the government while overruling the previous single-judge bench verdict that had allowed four-star and heritage category bar hotels in the state. The HC also quashed the petition filed by the bar owners seeking renewal of the bar licences. The division bench upheld the government decision to allow the bars in beer and wine parlours. The court also said that it could not intervene in the government policy that is aimed at public welfare. The court rejected the argument put forward by the bar owners that the ban would adversely affect the tourism industry and thereby ruin the lives of thousands of employees in the sector.
With the court decision, the shutters have come down for 300 bar hotels on 31 March. Now, only 24 five-star hotels in the state would sell Indian-Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) along with the 300-odd Beverages Corporation outlets operating in the state.
The verdict of the high court has lifted the shattered spirits of the UDF leaders, who were reeling under the deluge of revelations made by Biju Ramesh, acting-president of the Bar Association of Kerala. Recently, Ramesh gave his secret statement to a magistrate court in Thiruvananthapuram against four ministers, including Finance Minister KM Mani and Excise Minister K Babu.
The Kerala government was facing a serious credibility crisis after the bar owners went public with corruption charges against the UDF ministers. The main allegation was against Mani, who in turn cast aspersions against some other leaders in the Congress, whom he thought were behind the allegation.
While many were thinking that the bar-bribe allegation would wreck the UDF, the high court order came as a life-saver for the government, at least for the time being.
With the Aruvikkara Assembly byelection round the corner — the seat fell vacant with the death of Speaker G Karthikeyan — the UDF is all set to make the liquor policy its main campaign plank there.
Chief Minister Oommen Chandy may consider the court ruling as a temporary relief, but the biggest gainer in this whole episode is the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president VM Sudheeran, who has all along stood for the new liquor policy, against all odds. It was Sudheeran’s hard position that the licences of bar hotels that were shut down because of not maintaining standards should not be renewed, which later snowballed into a major controversy within the Congress party.
Sensing that public opinion was turning against him, Chandy reluctantly decided to come up with a policy that sought phased prohibition in the state. Sudheeran was at the receiving end when different courts through their interim orders stayed the implementation of the policy. But now that his view has prevailed, Sudheeran’s grip on the state unit of the party might tighten, which could change the power equation in the faction-ridden KPCC.
Meanwhile, the State Vigilance Department’s investigation is continuing on the allegation levelled by the bar owners against Mani and the chargesheet is expected any time. In case Mani’s name figures in it, the political temperature in the UDF will rise once again. Until then, it’s happy hours for the ruling front in Kerala.