When the Kerala government got a favourable High Court order in April 2015, allowing it to pull the shutters on 300 bars, bringing the tally of closed bars to 718, it was anticipated by many that the bar owners would have the last laugh. Reason: the liquor policy of the State government was challenged in the Supreme Court on the grounds of it being discriminatory. And when a battery of high-profile legal eagles, led by Advocate General Mukul Rohatgi, decided to defend the bar owners, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said it was unconstitutional and tantamount to conflict of interest. The A-G promptly shot back, saying he was representing a private party for which he had the Law Ministry’s approval and asked Chandy what he was afraid of.
Now, the Supreme Court bench, headed by Justice Vikramajit Sen, has upheld the State government’s liquor policy. The Kerala government defended its policy saying that those ousted from the business had no fundamental right to continue selling liquor at bars. With this, only 27 five-star hotel bars and 33 clubs in the State are left standing for sale and consumption of liquor. Tourism, the State’s economic mainstay, has seen reduced footfalls with the ‘small and indigenous’ State model getting defeated by the five-star ‘sun, sand and surf’ model, it is feared. The irony is that this has come at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi keeps stressing on Make In India and Start-Up India. Despite these curbs, there is the stark reality of only 11 per cent fall in hard liquor sale, offset by beer and wine consumption, up by 45 per cent and 185 per cent respectively. No surprise that it accounts for 20 per cent of the State’s total revenue.
With State Assembly elections only a few months away, the political implications of this decision are huge. There are many, including quite a few in the ruling front, who believe that the State government got more than what it bargained for. The flip side, of course, is that the ruling United Democratic Front alliance can ride the high ‘morality and abstinence’ horse during the run-up to the polls, daring the opposition Left Democratic Front to promise that it would re-open the bars if elected. The opposition leader V S Achuthanandan, whose uncanny ability to hit the nail on the head with home-grown homilies, put it in a nutshell, when he compared the plight of the UDF government to the saying, “Operation successful, but the patient is dead”.