WITH barely six months left in office, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government in Kerala is being drawn into the vortex of a major bribery scandal involving the liquor trade, with the recent resignation of Finance Minister K.M. Mani only serving to draw more attention to allegations of corruption against other Ministers.
Nearly a year after it first came to light, the “bar bribery case” seems to have finally attained critical mass, with the spotlight now turning on Excise Minister K. Babu and some other Congress Ministers.
Mani resigned reluctantly on November 10 after a single bench of the Kerala High Court made some adverse remarks while asking the State Vigilance and Anti Corruption Bureau (VACB) to “further investigate” the bribery case against him, as directed earlier by the Vigilance Special Court in Thiruvananthapuram.
Among other significant observations, the High Court said: “In a case like this, it is quite natural for the common man to entertain a feeling that there cannot be a proper investigation by a State machinery when the accused, against whom fingers are being pointed, is continuing as a Minister.”
The liquor trade has been a known source of funds for all major political parties in Kerala, a State where the per capita consumption of alcohol is one of the highest in India and where up to 23 per cent of the government’s revenue used to be obtained from the sale of liquor. It is no secret that owners of liquor bars have, as a result, always enjoyed a cosy relationship with politicians in the State.
But such a convenient atmosphere was rudely shaken in August 2014 when Chief Minister Oommen Chandy abruptly announced that the government would close down all the (730) liquor bars in the private sector as part of the Congress’ decision to introduce total prohibition in Kerala in stages over a period of 10 years.
The announcement, made at a meeting that was originally meant to discuss the contentious issue of reopening 418 bars that were shut down in April 2014 for failure to upgrade their facilities to the required standards, took even Oommen Chandy’s Cabinet colleagues by surprise.
Given the Congress’ policy of introducing total prohibition, the issue of reopening the bars became a problem, with prohibition movements and several organisations taking a stand against it. Inner-party tensions within the State Congress increased, with Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) president V.M. Sudheeran maintaining that the bars should not be allowed to reopen. But the Chief Minister was of the view that no government could order some bars to be closed down while allowing (312) others to function.
As if on cue, the owners of the 418 bars approached the High Court, which then ordered an inspection to find out the state of the facilities in each of the outlets that was shut down. Many bar owners had by then spent lakhs of rupees to upgrade their outlets in order to meet the prescribed standards at the time of the inspection.
What was obvious was that the government was until then merely waiting for a favourable court order, depending on the inspection report, to allow the bars to reopen. But with the PCC taking a tough stand against it, soon the Muslim League and the Kerala Congress (Mani) began arguing against their reopening.
It was a troublesome phase for the UDF, with increasing talk of even a possible change of leadership within the Congress Legislature Party and rumours that Mani was nurturing an ambition to become the Chief Minister even if it meant wrecking the UDF. Oommen Chandy’s unexpected decision to close down all bars was meant to outwit his party rivals and the UDF leaders who put him in a position where he looked like the only prominent leader supporting the liquor lobby’s cause.
Oommen Chandy’s move silenced his critics and scotched all such rumours, but bar owners, some owning several outlets, were left to pay the price for such a drastic political decision. Soon enough, the working president of the Kerala Bar Hotel Owners Association, Biju Ramesh, alleged in a television interview that the Finance Minister had demanded a hefty bribe from bar owners for renewing the licences of 418 sub-standard bars and had accepted part of it in instalments.
Subsequently, Biju Ramesh alleged that the Excise Minister had solicited and accepted bribes in order to reduce the steep hike in bar licence fee that was being proposed in the 2012-13 State Budget and also for sanctioning bar and beer parlour licences to hoteliers.
But with Leader of the Opposition V.S. Achuthanandan raising the allegations against Mani in a formal complaint to the Home Minister, and as demands for his resignation grew, the government ordered a “quick verification” by the VACB into Mani’s case. In the months that followed, the case against Mani remained in the spotlight, while the allegations against Babu faded into the background, especially with the VACB conducting a “preliminary enquiry” in June and declaring that there was no evidence to warrant his prosecution.
In Mani’s case, on the other hand, a first information report (FIR) was filed before the Vigilance Court.
The alleged offence, the FIR stated, was that he demanded “Rs.5 crore as illegal gratification to facilitate the renewal of bar licences and obtained Rs.1 crore from the office-bearers of the Kerala Bar Hotel Owners Association over three occasions during the period between March 20 and April 3, 2014.” It also said that Mani, a public servant, “abused his official position and thereby committed criminal misconduct” under Sections 7 and 13 of the Prevention of Corruption Act and that the minutes of the bar association meeting “bolster the allegations in the case”.
However, in the final report filed before the Vigilance Special Judge, the VACB controversially sought the closure of the case against Mani claiming that there was no evidence to prosecute him.
The judge rejected this conclusion and ordered that the investigation against Mani should continue, but the VACB went on appeal to the High Court and even bypassed the Advocate General to seek the legal opinion of private lawyers.
Mani, who should have resigned as soon as the vigilance case was registered against him, was forced to do so under pressure following the High Court’s observations nearly a year later. The allegations and the pressure on him to resign could not have come at a more inconvenient time. For Mani, with nine MLAs in his party (a crucial number with the potential to make or break the Congress-led government in its early years), was until then widely rumoured to be responding favourably to feelers from the Left Democratic Front (LDF). With the allegations marring his image, most such suitors (except a desperate Bharatiya Janata Party, of late, which somehow wants to gain entry into the State Assembly) have dropped the idea of an alliance with his party.
Moreover, during the political drama enacted before television cameras for a whole day before Mani eventually sent in his resignation letter to Oommen Chandy, the rest of the ruling coalition, including the P.J. Joseph faction in Mani’s party, subtly demonstrated that they could survive without Mani’s help.
It was, therefore, a bitter Mani who eventually resigned, with very few friends coming to his rescue. He made pointed statements soon after he left office—that he was the victim of a political conspiracy, that he did not get justice, that some people were baying for his blood for quite some time, that some may have been worried over the rumours that he was preparing for a role as Chief Minister, and, more importantly, that, while the allegations against him were based on “mere hearsay”, those raised against Babu implied that Biju Ramesh had directly paid him the bribe.
Sure enough, such statements do not bode well for the UDF government as it braces itself for another round of political storms over the bar case allegations before the Assembly elections in early 2016.