Sitaram Yechury's comments on prohibition leave Kerala CPI(M) leaders with a hangoverCommunist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury has upset the plans of the Left Democratic Front led by his party in Kerala, which was trying to keep both those for and against prohibition in good humour ahead of next month’s assembly elections.

The opposition front had earlier attempted to project an ambiguous position on the phased prohibition introduced by the Congress-led United Democratic Front government in September 2014.

The LDF’s election manifesto committee had last week mulled a dual approach. While they would review the UDF government’s policy that seeks to impose total prohibition in 10 years if the LDF came to power, the Left front would also implement phased prohibition by reducing the availability of liquor.

Surprisingly, there was no indication about of the fate of more than 700 bars closed by the UDF governments. This, despite repeated taunts from Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, the chief architect of the phased prohibition policy, and his UDF colleagues.

Unwelcome intervention

But when the UDF and prohibitionists branded the LDF’s proposed policy as a clever attempt to reopen the bars, Sitaram Yechury decided to intervene. The CPI(M) general secretary on Friday sought to clear the ambiguity by categorically stating that the LDF will not reopen any of the closed bars should they come to power.

“Our policy has always been to reduce liquor consumption in Kerala,” said Yechury. “So our effort is to further reduce liquor consumption.”

He added that an LDF government would not reverse any of the decisions on prohibition taken by the current government.

Senior state leaders have not taken kindly to intervention from the central leadership. They have refused to say anything publicly about Yechury’s clarification. However, a mid-level leader, who did not want to be identified, said that the CPI (M) had never supported total prohibition.

“We believe that prohibition is not practical,” the leader said. “It has failed wherever it was implemented. We could not make it a success even in a small tribal belt in the state. The prohibition introduced at Attappadi in Palakkad district has led to several harms. We firmly believe that liquor consumption can be checked only through abstinence.”

This was the same position that the LDF’s two possible chief ministerial candidates, VS Achuthanandan and Pinarayi Vijayan, and CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan had taken earlier. Kanam Rajendran, state secretary of Communist Party of India, the main ally of the CPM, had also backed them.

Chandy’s charges

Leaders of the Congress-led UDF believe that the LDF had taken a divergent stand on the issue so as to placate both the bar owners and prohibitionists, especially the Catholic Church, which had even issued an open appeal to defeat those who oppose prohibition.

Chief minister Oommen Chandy described the LDF approach as the result of a secret deal reached with the bar owners, who want at least the three and four star category bars reopened. Currently, only bars in five-star hotels can serve alcohol. Chandy’s charge is significant in the light of allegations that the bar owners had given Rs 10 crore to the CPI(M) for dislodging the Chandy government.

Kerala Bar Hotel Owners Association working president Biju Ramesh, who had levelled bribery charges against former finance minister KM Mani and excise minister K Babu, had admitted that the bar owners had approached the CPI(M) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan for help to reopen the bars. However, Balakrishnan said that he had sought only clarifications about the allegations they levelled against the UDF ministers.

“My government had paid a ‘heavy price’ due to the closure of bars,” said Chandy, The opposition had tried to collude with bar owners to bring down the elected government. The bar owners are behind even the latest sexual allegations raised against me by solar scam accused Saritha Nair.” Chandy has filed a defamation suit against Nair.

Voter backlash

The chief minister said that Yechury’s intervention was prompted by fears of a backlash in the upcoming elections. However, Chandy was hopeful voters would understand the actual motives behind the CPI(M) move and continue to support the UDF.

Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala raised doubts over Yechury’s sincerity. He felt that the CPI(M) leader may have adopted the stance on prohibition as the party could not afford another defeat in Kerala. Ramesh thinks the LDF may change its position and reopen the bars once they come to power.

Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee president VM Sudheeran said Yechury’s statement was borne out of fear that any move to review the UDF’s liquor policy will evoke public protest. He has urged the state leadership of the party to make their stand clear on Yechury’s statement.

The Temperance Commission of the Catholic Bishops Council, which has been spearheading a campaign for total prohibition in Kerala, has also expressed doubts about the actual intentions of the LDF. A spokesman of the Commission said that they were awaiting the LDF manifesto to decide on their electoral strategy.