Explained: Political uproar in Kerala over alleged liquor policy bribery

A leaked audio clip, allegedly of a bar owner demanding bribes to influence liquor policy, sparked the row in Kerala.

ByDileep V Kumar

Published May 31, 2024 | 8:00 AMUpdatedMay 31, 2024 | 8:00 AM

A traditional toddy shop at Thasrak in Palakkad. Photo: K A Shaji

It started with a voice message.

Animon, President of the Idukki chapter of the Federation of Kerala Hotel Association, had no idea that his voice message in the association’s Idukki WhatsApp group would open a Pandora’s box, leading to widespread speculation and political uproar.

The explosive audio clip, which became public on 24 May, ignited a controversy in Kerala, with the Opposition suggesting potential corruption involving a favorable new liquor policy, 2024-25, in exchange for solicited funds.

However, the government vehemently denied all accusations. Beyond fielding ministers to address the issue, high-ranking officials, including the chief secretary, actively stepped in to explain the government’s stance and approach.

But the state’s new liquor policy, which is in the pipeline, is likely to remain a contentious issue, shrouded in suspicion and accusations.

Adding to the government’s challenges is the Assembly session — beginning 10 June — with the liquor policy likely to dominate the discussions.

Related: UDF demands ministers’ resignation

The message

In the leaked message, purportedly sent by Animon, he demanded a substantial sum of ₹2.5 lakh each from bar owners for a “favourable” liquor policy.

The “favourable” decisions included doing away with the practice of observing the first day of every month as a dry day (the day on which all bar hotels and retail liquor outlets will remain closed).

Later, on 27 May, Animon came out with the explanation that he had sought funds from members for the purchase of a building in Thiruvananthapuram for the association.

While dismissing the accusations that he had tried to bribe the government, Animon added that he was uncertain why he used the term ‘bribe’ in the voice message.

The association which denied issuing any directions for fund collection for a favourable liquor policy however stated that a fund collection drive was one for purchasing a building in Thiruvananthapuram.

Related: State government claims no discussions held; Opposition alleges graft

Controversial Zoom meeting

The Opposition alleged that bar owners were approached for funds to influence liquor policy changes.

Liquor Policy 2023-24

This controversy intensified when reports emerged that the Tourism Department, rather than the Excise Department, was involved in discussions about the policy. The Opposition raised suspicions of improper conduct and corruption.

Then on 26 May came the press conference of Leader of the Opposition VD Satheesan. He alleged that for the past two months, there have been consultations on the liquor policy.

“A meeting convened by the chief secretary earlier last month instructed the tourism secretary to submit a report on the change in liquor policy. The Tourism Department then convened a meeting on 21 May which was attended by bar owners,” Satheesan said.

He further added, “It was a Zoom meeting and I had its link. The agenda of the meeting was Liquor Policy Review. In that meeting, discussions were held on ‘dry day’ and extending the opening hours of bars.”

According to him, a meeting of bar owners was subsequently held in Ernakulam and it was decided to collect money to get the policy revised in favour of them.

Related: Congress sees ‘blatant lies’, demands judicial probe

Six questions

Satheesan also came out with six questions for the government:

VD Satheesan (Screengrab)

VD Satheesan (Screengrab)

1. Why did the tourism department get involved in the liquor policy surpassing the excise department?
2. Why the unnecessary haste by the tourism department in the matter?
3. Why did both ministers lie that no discussion took place?
4. Why an inquiry against those who raised the allegation? (Citing the excise minister’s complaint to the state police chief on the audio recording)
5. Why is this government not ordering a vigilance inquiry? (The Oommen Chandy government announced a vigilance investigation when there were allegations of bar bribery against the then-finance minister K M Mani)
6. Why did the chief minister maintain silence despite serious allegations against two ministers in his Cabinet?

Sharpening the attack further, Satheesan, alleged that the Tourism Department’s involvement indicates an attempt to hijack the policy-making process, traditionally handled by the Excise Department.

Related: LDF government trying to drown Kerala in alcohol, says UDF

Government’s stance

According to minister MB Rajesh, who holds the Excise portfolio, the state government has yet to sit down to formulate the new excise policy.

Mohammed-riyas_som

Minister PA Mohammed Riyas.

Alleging conspiracy to defame the government, Rajesh formally complained to the state police chief who ordered a Crime Branch inquiry.

The ruling CPI(M) also denied the allegations and the demand for the resignation of Rajesh. According to CPI(M) state secretary MV Govindan, the government had not even begun preliminary discussions on the policy.

However, he added that though there was a demand for scrapping the dry day norm of keeping outlets shut on the first day of every month and national holidays, a decision was yet to be made.

Meanwhile, Tourism Minister PA Mohammad Riyas felt there was a clear agenda in dragging him into the bar bribery allegations.

When asked about the meeting convened by the Tourism Department on 21 May which allegedly discussed liquor policy review, Riyas, however, stated that ministers need not be told about all meetings.

Also Read: BJP leader moves Kerala HC against CM Vijayan’s daughter Veena’s alleged foreign bank accounts

Officials step in

According to the Tourism Directorate, media reports on the Tourism Department discussing liquor policy were misleading.

According to it, the meeting was a regular one, attended by stakeholders including representatives of resorts, hotels, houseboats, event management groups and others.

However, the Opposition alleged that officials were forced to lie to protect the ministers.

With the Opposition training its guns at the government, Chief Secretary V Venu came out with an explanation on 27 May.

“The reports being circulated that the liquor policy is going to be changed to avoid dry days in the state are baseless and such a campaign is being carried out by misinterpreting the discussions held on the steps to be taken to improve the financial condition of the state,” he said.

He said a secretary-level meeting he had chaired on 1 March discussed steps to be taken to improve the financial position of the state government and overall administrative efficiency.

Also Read: Arrears and conflict with Union government mar Kerala’s revenue gains

Revenue earner

In the 2022-23 financial year, the government earned ₹16,100 crore as tax from selling liquor. The total income from liquor sale during the fiscal was ₹18,500 crore.

“Various areas and issues were identified in the meeting for further discussions in the future to improve the financial position of the state. In that meeting, it was pointed out that as there is no sale of liquor in the state for 12 days in a year when a dry day is observed on the first day of every month it is affecting the tourism sector,” Venu said.

He added, “A similar demand was raised earlier by the stakeholders towards Industries and Excise departments also. But a final decision is yet to be taken in this regard.”

Venu further said that the chief secretary routinely chaired review meetings every month and it has now been misinterpreted to generate false narratives.

Also Read: CM Vijayan says extreme poverty will be eradicated by 2025

Liquor Policy-2023-24

The policy that gave priority to the state’s traditional toddy sector permitted bars in industrial parks, facilitated domestic production of liquor, and started 250 retail liquor outlets.

Apart from that, restaurants in tourist destinations were allowed to serve beer and wine during tourist season.

The excise minister then said that the modalities of giving the licence will be worked out in consultation with the Tourism Department.

Announcing the new policy, he said that toddy would be promoted as a ‘traditional drink’, branded as ‘Kerala Toddy.’

(Edited by Majnu Babu).