Kerala’s ongoing liquor saga got murky on Saturday with government fending off bar owners’ claim that finance minister KM Mani demanded Rs 5-crore bribe to favour them while formulating the state’s liquor policy.
Biju Ramesh, working president of the Kerala Bar Owners’ Association, created a flutter late Friday after claiming on TV panel discussion that the first installment of Rs 1 crore had been delivered at Mani’s residence. He dragged chief minister Oommen Chandy into the picture, saying he was aware of the payment.
Ramesh’s claims came on a day Kerala high court stayed for a month an earlier single judge bench verdict directing 250 two and three star bars to close immediately.
The bar licence issue is before Kerala high court following the government’s decision to shut down hundreds of bars in accordance with a long term aim to make the state alcohol-free.
Kerala has the highest per capita consumption of alcohol in India — more than eight litres per person annually, while the national average is 5.7 litres.
The CM dismissed the bar owner’s association’s allegations and also ruled out a probe. Mani too rubbished the charge.
On TV, Ramesh, however, had been emphatic. “The exact date on which we delivered the money can be retrieved from our pass books. We met him (Mani) a second time when the decision on liquor policy was delayed,” he had said.
"When we conveyed this to the CM, he advised us not to pay a single rupee. We are ready to furnish proof if a probe is ordered," he had added.
Another office-bearer of the association claimed Rs 15 crore had been collected from different bar owners to grease many palms.
Following a storm over the allegations, the CM said, “It is a ridiculous charge. Nobody can tarnish the image of a man who has been there in the public domain for more than six decades.”
Amid support from the CM, Mani said he was ready for any probe. “It is a conspiracy to defame me and my party.”
After the Congress and the Muslim League, his party, the Kerala Congress (Mani), is the biggest partner of the state’s ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) coalition.
The row acquired political overtones as government chief whip and Kerala Congress (Mani) nominee PC George alleged Chandy was behind the allegations.
Referring to George's remark, Mani said, “I do not believe the chief minister is behind the allegations.”
To add to the UDF’s worries, senior Congress legislator TN Prathapan sought a high-level inquiry into allegations. The CM and state Congress president VM Sudheeran pulled up the MLA for making such a demand.
Opposition CPM has sought a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into the allegations. “The CM should remove him (Mani) from the cabinet,” said opposition leader VS Achuthanandan.
(With inputs from Agencies)