A political correction for UDF

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM March 29. The Chief Minister, A. K. Antony, must be the happiest man because his Government's new liquor policy has not evoked much resistance.

More than the administrative aspect, the decision to introduce licensing system for toddy shops on an individual basis, subject to a long list of conditions, amounts to a political correction of sorts for the UDF, under Mr. Antony's leadership.

The decision would help the UDF and Mr. Antony draw the Ezhava community, which has a strong presence in the toddy sector, closer to the ruling coalition, besides consolidating the strong support it got from this community, with has displayed strong leftist propensity.

The most interesting aspect of the decision is the democratic way in which the toddy issue was sorted out, through protracted discussions with forces holding divergent viewpoints. The UDF and the Congress party itself remained divided over the toddy policy, with one section coming out against the communal undercurrents in formulating such a policy.

The series of discussions at various levels helped the Chief Minister to nudge the opposing groups to agree to a policy, or at least to an arrangement which resembled the original scheme that the UDF, and Mr. Antony himself had in mind.

The Chief Minister could not ignore the strong opposition of the Christian Churches to the UDF's attempts to auction toddy shops to abkari contractors. The success story is that he has been able to appease the Christian communities, which have, by and large, stood with the UDF through thick and thin, by promising a series of administrative actions to satisfy their anti-liquor aspirations, while at the same time carry along the Ezhava community.

The toddy issue can be seen only in the context of the UDF's election promise that it would disband the CITU-dominated toddy workers cooperatives, which were given the rights to run toddy shops.

It was able to win the confidence of the Ezhava community on way to notching up one of the best performances in assembly elections since 1962.

A majority of administrative action Mr. Antony has taken since coming to power on the strength of his mandate has been directed towards keeping this community with the UDF.

While deciding its liquor policy, including the toddy sector, the Antony cabinet has taken sufficient care to induct a heavy dose of checks and balances, lest it fall into the same trap that the CPI(M)-led LDF fell. Besides, the State Government has made it clear that it did not want to milk the sector for additional resources.

This is clear from the Rs. 24 crores ceiling it has placed on revenue yields through licensing of liquor shops.

The State Government is very clear in its message that it would not permit lapses. With corruption levels in the Excise and Police departments on the higher side, it would be a tall task to make the liquor policy work effectively, despite the checks and balances.

Having taken a political decision, the onus is on the Chief Minister and the Finance-Excise Minister, K. Sankaranarayanan, who has apparently emerged as his close confidante in Cabinet, to ensure sufficient political control on the excise and police departments, the implementing arm of the liquor policy.

They would also have to use administrative measures to ensure that the liquor policy does not turn out to be the UDF's Achilles heel.

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