THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: With the Pinarayi Vijayan government dumping the UDF liquor policy, calling it a total failure, the bar controversy which kept the political establishment abuzz for three years has come a full circle.
The entire episode - replete with bribery charges, resignation dramas and court cases - dates back to 2014, when, citing poor quality, the then UDF government decided not to renew the licences of 418 bars. The licences expired on March 31, 2014.
Politically, the decision was a fallout of the tussle between the then KPCC chief V M Sudheeran and the then Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. Later, in August 2014, the government decided to shut the remaining 312 bars, and close 10 per cent of the government-run liquor outlets every year.
Bars were restricted to five-star hotels. But in October, the UDF Government hit rough weather when hotelier and bar owner Biju Ramesh, who headed the Kerala Bar Hotels Association (KBHA), blew the lid off the bar scam.
He charged Finance Minister K M Mani with taking Rs 1 crore as bribe for renewing the licences. Mani clung on, and the Kerala Assembly witnessed tumultuous scenes in March 2015, when Left MLAs tried to prevent Mani from presenting the budget.
Under tremendous pressure, especially with adverse remarks from the High Court, the Kerala Congress (M) chief quit as minister in November 2015. Next it was the turn of Excise Minister K Babu to face the music.
Faced with bribery charges, and the Vigilance Court ordering a case be filed against him, Babu - a first-time minister - put in his papers on January 23, 2016. But the government decided against accepting the resignation. By then, the Assembly elections were around the corner.
The UDF policy was aimed at enforcing total liquor ban in the state in 10 years, but the LDF called it impractical, saying abstinence is a better option.
Anyhow, the elections gifted the LDF with a thumping victory. Mani won, Babu lost and Biju Ramesh - who contested on an AIADMK seat - also lost. From the start, the LDF had given ample hints a total policy reversal was on the cards. But its official declaration had to wait. On December 15, 2016, the Supreme Court, alarmed by the rise in the number of road accident deaths, ordered the states to close down liquor shops situated along state and National Highways(NH).
It triggered a series of decisions which left the LDF Government red-faced. One was an affidavit which sought the exclusion of beer and wine from the purview of liquor. This, when the state’s own Abkari policy emphatically declared they were indeed that. Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi’s advice the beer and wine parlours did not fall within the definition of ‘liquor shops,’ and therefore were immune from the SC order, also fell flat. By then, the government was facing intense pressure from the anti-liquor movement, led by the Church.
On March 31, 2017, the beer/wine parlours and the outlets of Kerala State Beverages Corporation (Bevco) and Kerala State Cooperatives Consumers Federation Ltd (Consumerfed) situated along the highways were shuttered.
The declaration of the policy was further delayed as Excise Minister T P Ramakrishnan was taken ill. On another front, Bevco continued to battle public protests as it tried to find new premises for its 179 closed down shops.
More recently, another controversy added more spice to the row, when bar owners went to court questioning the legality of certain NH stretches. The government hastened to allow liquor shops to reopen on these stretches, but held back after the High Court frowned on the decision.