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Simply put: How the bar bribery scandal impacts Kerala politics

The Indian Express recounts the year-old controversy that has now forced Finance Minister K M Mani to resign. But the government seems safe, for now.

Written by Shaju Philip |
Updated: November 12, 2015 12:00:36 am
bar bribery case, bar bribery scandal, kerala bar scandal, k m mani, k m mani bar bribery case, mani bribery case, kerala news, cochin news, latest news Kerala Finance Minister
K M Mani.

When and how did the Kerala bar bribery scandal surface?

The bar bribery scandal emerged on October 31, 2014, on the day Kerala High Court ratified the government’s new liquor policy that put restrictions on bars in the state. The High Court verdict came following a petition from the Bar Hotel Owners’ Association, which challenged the government policy.

When and why did Kerala impose restrictions on liquor?

The new liquor policy came into effect on October 1, 2014, and shut down all bars except those in five-star hotels. The new policy stemmed from a tussle between Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and Congress state president V M Sudheeran over renewing the liquor licences of 418 bars that were identified as “substandard”.

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Sudheeran was against the renewal of the licences, and identified such a decision as the first step towards total prohibition. Irked over Sudheeran’s stand, Chandy summarily announced the immediate closure of all bars below the five-star category, with the intention of ushering in total prohibition in a decade.

What were the allegations against (former minister) K M Mani?

While participating in a discussion on a TV channel that day, Biju Ramesh, working president of Kerala Bar Hotel Owners’ Association, said Mani, the Finance Minister (who resigned on Tuesday), had sought Rs 5 crore to renew the liquor licence of 418 bars identified as “substandard”. He alleged the minister had been paid Rs 1 crore in two instalments, but no further payments happened after the liquor policy closed the prospects of re-opening the bars.

What did the initial investigations find?

Opposition leader V S Achuthanandan of the CPI(M) complained to the Kerala Home Minister asking that a case be registered against Mani. Based on that complaint, the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau of the state carried out a “quick verification” of the allegation, and made out a case against Mani.

What were the findings of the VACB?

The Vigilance officer’s report said there was enough oral, documentary and scientific evidence to chargesheet Mani in the case. There was sufficient evidence that Mani had accepted Rs 10 lakh from Bar Hotel Owners’ Association leader Rajkumar Unni on April 2, 2014, at his official residence. The vehicle registry at the minister’s official residence recorded the entry of a car owned by Biju Ramesh that day. Ramesh had said that he had given his car to Unni to meet the minister to hand over the money. The report added that while Mani had denied meeting Bar Hotel Owners’ representatives at his residence in Pala on March 22, 2014, all seven members of the body had said they had met Mani at his residence on that day.

However, the VACB legal adviser rejected the view of the investigating officer that there were enough grounds to proceed against Mani under sections of the Prevention of Corruption Act. VACB chief Vinson M Paul also backed the legal adviser. Subsequently, the investigating officer submitted a report in court seeking its permission to close the case.

When and how did the Kerala High Court get involved in the matter? What has the court said so far?

The vigilance court in Thiruvananthapuram refused to give VACB permission to close the case. The court said there was enough evidence to prima facie make out a case against Mani that he had collected money from bar owners. The court also rapped the VACB director for interfering in the report prepared by the investigating officer. Subsequently, the VACB moved the High Court, asking that the vigilance court’s order be quashed. However, the High Court ratified the lower court’s order for further probe against Mani.

How does the pressure on Mani impact the Kerala government? Is there a danger of the government falling?

The Congress government, which has barely six months left in its term, has only 72 members in the 140-strong Assembly. Apart from Mani, the Kerala Congress (M) has another minister — P J Joseph. After his resignation, Mani said his party would remain with the UDF. Joseph and his party Kerala Congress (J) had been with the LDF from 1996 to 2010, but merged with Mani’s Kerala Congress on the eve of the last Assembly elections in 2011. Joseph has loyalists within the Kerala Congress (M), but a spilt in the wake of Mani’s resignation is unlikely. Although Mani has been a sought after leader for the CPI(M) and even the BJP in the past, the bar case has hurt him politically and made him a somewhat of a pariah. It is likely he will stay on in the UDF, at least for now.

What role has the CPM played in the controversy?

When allegations were initially made against Mani, the CPI(M) was soft on the Christian leader. It blamed Chief Minister Oommen Chandy for spoiling Mani’s chances of becoming chief minister. Later, however, the CPI(M) went after Mani, and tried to prevent him from presenting the Budget. Over the last one year, the bar bribery scandal has been a major stick for the CPI(M) to beat the government with.

How are things likely to shape up as the Assembly elections get closer?

Mani’s resignation has taken the sting out of the agitations the Left had planned. However, the issue can remain alive if Mani makes disclosures against any Congress minister in the scandal. Besides, the timing and findings of the submission of the further probe report would be crucial.

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