Chandy’s move sets the bar higher in political one-upmanship

KPM BASHEER Kochi | Updated on August 22, 2014

Party rivals: KPCC President VM Sudheeran and Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy (file photo).

By banning bars, Kerala CM beats rival Sudheeran in latest round

It was a decision that surprised, excited and raised the eyebrows of millions of people in Kerala.

On Thursday evening, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy announced the ruling coalition’s decision to close down all the 700-odd bars in the State, except the 16 attached to 5-star hotels, in a plan to make Kerala alcohol-free over the next 10 years.

He also announced a slew of other measures such as closure of all liquor outlets on Sundays.

The decision was dramatic. Because, until two days before, Chandy had vigorously campaigned for letting the 418 ‘substandard’ bars, shut down since March 31, to reopen after giving them time to improve.

However Kerala Pradesh Congress Party (KPCC) president VM Sudheeran had stonewalled the proposal.

What prompted the Chief Minister’s U-turn?

Chandy, a seasoned politician and leader of the ‘A’ group (A stands for AK Antony) within the Congress’ State unit, had been painted into a corner by Sudheeran’s opposition to the reopening of the 418 bars.

Ever since these bars, mostly attached to 2-star hotels, were closed on March 31, just 10 days ahead of the Lok Sabha election, the issue has been a political hot potato for the Congress-led United Democratic Party Government.

At the time, everyone thought the bars’ licences would be renewed once the election was over, as the Government would not be able to forego the huge revenue from liquor and the political class could not afford to alienate the ‘bars lobby.’

However, freshly-appointed Sudheeran — Chandy had opposed the appointment — wouldn’t relent. As days passed, KPCC chief grew in stature and support.

A large section of the Kerala society that has been troubled by the double-digit annual increase in alcohol consumption, and the influential Catholic Church, threw their weight behind him. Over time, even Left politicians fell in line.

The media pitted Chandy against Sudheeran. The former, who wanted a pragmatic approach, was projected as the representative of the liquor lobby while the latter was elevated as a committed anti-liquor campaigner.

The issue was reduced to Sudheeran versus Chandy. Sudheeran, who is not attached to any group, had gotten the upper hand in the faction-ridden Congress, leaving Chandy’s influence declining.

Last straw

Chandy needed to do something dramatic to get rid of the pro-bar-lobby image and to better Sudheeran.

The last straw was the open support, given a day before the crucial decision, to Sudheeran’s stand by the Indian Union Muslim League and the Kerala Congress (Mani), the No. 2 and No.3 parties in the UDF coalition.

Following a high court ultimatum, the UDF held a meeting on Thursday afternoon, which the CM attended with a prepared text containing the new liquor policy.

The new policy, which reversed most of his earlier stands, goes far beyond Sudheeran’s stand to not allow the 418 bars to reopen.

It offers a time-bound plan for total prohibition in 10 years, disallows the 418 bars to reopen, declares all Sundays as dry days and propounds a rehabilitation plan for liquor workers losing jobs.

The stunned UDF meeting unanimously accepted the policy.

Sudheeran wanted to close 418 2-star bars. Chandy plans to close down all the 730 bars in the State, barring the 16 5-star ones. Sudheeran spoke of prohibition as the party’s long-term policy. Chandy came up with a time-bound action plan.

For now, in the game of political one-upmanship, Chandy is the winner.

Published on August 22, 2014

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