It was just unthinkable until a few days ago. India's southernmost state of Kerala has taken a call, though tough in the extreme, to inch towards total prohibition. There are no two opinions that a liquor-free Kerala is a great desideratum not least when we take on board the number of lives blighted by the use, or rather overuse, of alcohol.
The people of Kerala were left gobsmacked when Chief Minister Oommen Chandy announced some days ago the government's decision to make the state liquor-free. All along, the government had been reluctant to forgo the revenue from the sale of liquor.
Before going into the politics behind the somersault by the chief minister one should be up to speed with the nearly five-month long controversy which forced the government to go for total prohibition in the state a la Gujarat, Mizoram and Nagaland.
The genesis of the row was linked to the 418 non-five star hotel bars which were closed down as they failed to upgrade to two-star facilities.
A dominant section of the ruling Congress party had wanted them to reopen provided they shaped up. It was at this point that KPCC president V.M. Sudheeran took up the cudgels against any move to reopen the bars.
Sudheeran was supported by civil leaders and religious groups, not least the powerful KCBC (Kerala Catholic Bishops' Conference) who were then joined by Muslim League and Kerala Congress (M), two key constituents of the ruling UDF. All the while, the chief minister had been pussyfooting on the issue.
The government, it may be noted, has been reaping a revenue to the tune of Rs.8,000 crore from the sale of liquor, that is over one-third of the state's annual plan outlay. It was indeed difficult for the government to let go even half this amount.
But Sudheeran was able to pile relentless pressure on the government not to reopen the closed bars. The pressure kept on swelling even as support for his firm stand from various quarters of society snowballed diurnally.
The CM, who had been down such complex routes several times in the past sensed rightly that he was liable to be eased out of the chief ministerial chair if he had not bowed to the growing public feeling against the reopening of the bars.
His predecessor the late K. Karunakaran was edged out by his own party men, including his trusted lieutenants, in a spurious spy case almost in a similar fashion. So Chandy decided to outmanoeuvre Sudheeran using the same issue.
Instead of just 418 bars, Chandy, in a swift move, proposed that even the remaining 312 functioning bars be closed too. Furthermore, the existing outlets of both the state-owned Beverages Corporation and the Consumerfed would be closed too in a phased manner and by October 2, 2023 the state would be declared liquor-free.
A 5 per cent cess would be imposed on the sale of liquor which would be utilised for the rehabilitation of the bars employees and for conducting awareness campaigns.
Donations would also be received towards this end. CBCI (Catholic Bishops Conference of India) president Cardinal Mar Baselios Climmis has started the donation drive by remitting an amount to the fund set up for this purpose.
Whether it's practicable in a state which registers the highest rate of alcohol consumption in the country is a moot point. Nobody believes it is a no-brainer. A law banning the consumption of liquor, if in a phased manner, is not sufficient to extirpate the drinking habit of a great number of people.
The government should block a possible flow of illicit liquor from the neighbouring states with an iron hand. Besides, concerted campaigns by the government and socio-religious organisations through a diverse range of forums, not least educational institutions, are a sine qua non.
Chandy has showed how to make adversity to work in your favour. His camp and even the 'I' group in the Congress party had feared that Sudheeran was emerging as the sole hero in this hot-button issue and could be crowned the next chief minister.
It may be noted that Ramesh Chennithala, the 'I' group leader and the home minister, said to the effect that Sudheeran could have avoided criticising the government.
As for the opposition, they are now like a deer caught in the headlights. The crux of all what they have been saying is that the whole thing was the CM's gimmick to go one up on Sudheeran. They are ruing that the wily CM has succeeded in the game.
The writer is a freelance contributor based in India. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.