As I was bouncing along what passes for a highway from Cochin to my home near Thiruvalla recently, I noticed long snaking queues by the roadsides. Unable to resist the journalistic urge to pontificate, I launched into a, in hindsight, foolish peroration about how demonetisation had left no part of India untouched. “Look at these hapless people waiting patiently in such an orderly manner to get at their own money,” I ranted. After I had subsided somewhat, the driver laconically told me that these were not queues for ATMs but to buy liquor. He went on to add that the exemplary behaviour ended once the quiet man (always a man) in the queue got his hands on a bottle of the good stuff.
Clearly, former chief minister Oommen Chandy’s dream of a liquor-less state is fading faster than the bottles flying off the shelves. The CPI(M) is not all that enamoured of the huge excise revenue from liquor going to neighbouring states like Tamil Nadu where Malayalis flock to buy their daily fix. But the problems that have come with prohibition are far more serious. The economic effect has been worrying well before the ham-handed demonetisation drive made things worse. The new government is clearly itching to roll back this silly partial prohibition but such is our hypocrisy that even the diehard Malayali booze hound will not publicly say that he is against it. So, chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan will undo it but slowly and imperceptibly if such a thing is possible in politics today.
I never thought I would say this, but the CPI(M) under the new chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan is really trying to set things right in a state hurt by chronic unemployment and crippling labour problems. I noticed that there were almost no power cuts in the state now, as opposed to the lengthy ones last year. “Ah but that is because the Left unions have fallen in place and are not creating trouble now that their government is in power,” said my father whose grouses about power cuts reach me whichever part of the world I am in.
But he left out an important factor. The CPI(M) has been in power in Kerala before with nothing much to show for it. Former chief minister and Communist colossus VS Achuthanandan has near cult status in the state, but administrator he was not. The new chief minister is not a cuddly likeable person like the wisecracking Achuthanandan, even the amiable party general secretary Sitaram Yechury does not enjoy a great comfort level with him. But Vijayan is not hidebound by outdated Marxist shibboleths when it comes to business. He has actively encouraged business while mouthing the usual platitudes about the evils of capitalism.
Across the state posters of a moth-eaten Fidel Castro in the sunset years of his life and a forever young Che vie for place with that other evergreen icon of Kerala, superstar Mohanlal whose swarthy visage sells everything from umbrellas to Malabar gold jewelry. Here and there, Amit Shah and local BJP leaders peep out from small hoardings near paddy fields and duck ponds, a curious mélange if there ever was one. The BJP clearly has a long way to go here.
Vijayan has realised that without the huge waterfall of revenue from liquor excise, he cannot fulfil all the social welfare plans that the state is so famous for. The tourists have begun giving the state a miss without the easy availability of a nice evening drink unless you happen to be staying in a five-star hotel. Vijayan wants the state to become the IT capital of India, not such a pipedream when you think of its fully literate populace which is wasting away for want of jobs. But prohibition and the lack of life after hours are among factors which make Kerala unattractive.
The church, a powerful factor in Kerala politics, a variety of social workers and hypocritical politicians all feel that liquor is the bane of Kerala and once it is eradicated, all will fall in place. To Vijayan’s credit, he sees unemployment as a major factor not just for alcoholism but for domestic disharmony – Kerala has among the highest incidence of wife-battering. In fact, partial prohibition took away jobs in the liquor industry and drove the trade underground risking the health of drinkers.
It helps that that the CPI(M) has a finger in every business pie in the state, it runs TV channels, it controls a sizeable portion of the hospitality industry and it dabbles in healthcare and education. Wherever you are and whatever you do in Kerala, the comrades are never far from you. The government has now realised that the small, ecologically fragile state cannot go in for mass industrialisation but it cannot afford to grow as it is at present.
So the Haritha Kerala, or green Kerala initiative is being implemented to deal with pollution, solid waste management, tree planting and reviving water bodies. Significantly, religious organisations have also pitched in. The CPM has the advantage in that it has a disciplined cadre – when it wants to be or when a diktat goes out from the leader – to implement such drives unlike the unwieldy Swacch Bharat one elsewhere. The rank and file is in awe of the saturnine Vijayan who is not known to brook any opposition.
He still has the furious blowback of the Lavalin corruption scam nipping at his heels. He cannot still be sanguine that VS Achuthanandan will not stir up trouble for him. He has to handle the fallout of the demonetisation move. But on the whole, he has moved the party into a different space, shaken off its sloth and its anti-business image. Even with partial prohibition, two cheers to that.
The author tweets as @lalitapanicker