“I am the biggest victim of the closure of liquor bars in Kerala,” laments K Babu, the controversial Excise Minister in the previous United Democratic Front government headed by Oommen Chandy. “I paid the price for trying to faithfully implement a liquor policy that everybody said was impractical and unrealistic.”
Babu is a bitter man today. “Because of the liquor policy, I became a tainted man; my party men turned against me and I lost the election,” Babu told BusinessLine on Monday, a day after he slammed the Congress leadership for the liquor policy during a Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee’s meeting convened to discuss the election debacle.
In the May 16 Assembly election, Babu lost his Thrippunithura seat, from where he had been elected for four consecutive terms, to a young CPI(M) challenger. He blames the failure on the aftershocks of the ‘new liquor policy’ of the Chandy government which he was forced to implement as Excise Minister.
The policy, which entailed the closure of 700-odd bars in the State, was the UDF’s key campaign plank in the Assembly election. And though they hoped to return to power riding on a wave of women’s goodwill, it was the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front that won, wresting power with a thumping majority.
“The Congress and the UDF did not derive any benefit out of the liquor policy in the election,” Babu said. “Even the minorities (meaning, Muslims and the Catholic Church) which had cheered the closure of the bars, voted for the LDF.”Abrupt ban
In late 2014, then Chief Minister Chandy, in a surprising move, announced the policy, which mandated the closure of bars and outlined a plan to progressively reduce liquor availability leading to total prohibition in ten years.
Chandy’s decision was an attempt at one-upmanship over Congress State chief VM Sudheeran’s attempts to openly press the government to impose curbs on liquor trade. Babu, though privately opposed to the closure of the bars, was tasked with implementing the policy.The scandal
The powerful liquor trade struck back. The leader of the Kerala Bar Hotels Association accused then Finance Minister KM Mani of taking bribes as quid pro quo for lifting the ban on bars. Mani later quit. Then it was the turn of Babu, who too resigned, but was reinstated ahead of the elections.
“Nobody (in the Congress leadership) came to my defence when I was falsely accused of bribery by those who had lost big because of the liquor policy.” Babu now regrets having accepted the Excise portfolio in 2011. “I had declined initially,” Babu recalls. “But Oommen Chandy and AK Antony pressured me into becoming the Excise Minister.”
Prior to the elections, Sudheeran had strongly opposed fielding Babu as he was a ‘tainted minister’, only to relent eventually.
“This was a big handicap for me,” Babu says with unconcealed fury against Sudheeran. “It created the impression that I was an unwanted candidate of the Congress.”
“I don’t disown the liquor policy, but I am its biggest victim,” Babu rues.