Governor P Sathasivam’s address to the Kerala Assembly last week has created suspense over the new Left Democratic Front government’s liquor policy. This is the key paragraph in his address which has everyone excited:
“My government is of the view that restrictions on consumption of liquor have not yielded the desired positive impact. The increase in the use and availability of drugs in the State is disturbing. The opinion of people of all sections of the society will be taken into account before my government formulates its policy stand.”
Some saw a hint of change in liquor policy in his statement while others saw a clear move to alter the policy in favour of bar owners. The Kerala Catholic Bishop Council demanded that the government should not go back on the current policy brought by the previous government. Some of its supporters felt that the government would not reopen the bars closed by the previous government. A protest could be in the offing – but not just yet.
The previous government had closed down about 730 bars in three-star and four-star hotels and declared a policy that only five-star hotels would be permitted to run bars. In the place of bars, wine and beer parlours were freely sanctioned to them on the ground that phased prohibition was the policy of the government.
Rather than a committed move, the closure of the bars was a strategic decision taken by then Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. Members of the United Democratic Front openly scouted for closure of bars, while favouring bar owners behind the scene. The UDF tried to cash in on issue during the Assembly elections in May but clearly did not win much support. At the same time, the leader of bar hotel owners Biju Ramesh, who contested in Thiruvananthapuram on the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam ticket, got just 5,700 votes. The people were not voting for bars either.
The UDF warned the electorate that if the LDF came to power, it would reverse the liquor policy. At one point in the campaign, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Seetharam Yechuri had to clarify that closed bars would not be reopened.
A partial reversal?
However, now that the LDF has come to power in the state, speculation is rife that the government would reverse the policy – at least partially by September. Immediately after coming to power, the state secretary of the Communist Party of India, Kanam Rajendran, stated that the government would review the liquor policy. “The party is not for ban on liquor but abstinence from liquor,” he said.
The ongoing debate on liquor policy has found the BJP, which entered the Assembly for the first time with a sole member, in a dilemma. It has its much touted Gujarat model before it and has spoken about both phased prohibition and abstinence during the election campaign. However, its ally Bharat Dharma Jana Sena, welcomes the change in the liquor policy.
“If the government decides to change the liquor policy, that is a good thing,” Vellappally Natesan, the General Secretary of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, which promoted Bharat Dharma Jana Sena, said on Friday. The previous government’s policy, he added, was a failure. The LDF government’s policy of promoting abstinence was practical, he added.
The BJP state president Kummanam Rajasekharan confined his criticism about the Governor’s words on liquor policy to lack of clarity. “The address criticises the previous government’s policy, but says nothing about the new government’s policy. The government should clarify the policy,” he demanded.
The Indian Union Muslim League, a constituent of the UDF, which had consistently favoured prohibition, felt that the government does indeed propose a change in policy. “The address definitely indicates a change in liquor policy,” its leader PK Kunhalikutty told reporters.
It is possible that the LDF would permit bars in four-star hotels, given the views of its prominent leaders. It might also go back on the previous government’s decision to close down 10% retail outlets run by state-owned Beverages Corporation every year. However, if the government allows reopening of the bars, it may confirm the allegation made by the UDF that the LDF had a deal with bar owners prior to the elections. So, the ruling Front now has to tread carefully and hence the proposal for consultations with the public.