The bar bribery scandal of 2014, which had rocked the then Congress-led UDF regime in Kerala, is back on the front burner of political debate in the state.
Late K M Mani, a veteran of regional party Kerala Congress (M), was then forced to quit as the Finance Minister in the wake of the scandal — he was accused of pocketing Rs 1 crore from bar hotel owners to renew their liquor licence. Mani died in April 2019.
In his autobiography, which was released here on Thursday, Mani wrote that senior Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala, who had been the Home Minister in the UDF regime, took a stand against him (ordered vigilance probe into the allegations) because he (Mani) did not put his weight behind the demand to make Chennithala the chief minister.
The autobiography, titled Athmakatha, was released by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan who handed over a copy to Assembly Speaker A N Shamseer.
When the bar bribery scandal emerged, Oommen Chandy was the Chief Minister and Chennithala was the second-in-command in the Cabinet, holding home and vigilance portfolios. Being leaders of two power groups in the Congress, both were at loggerheads and Chennithala had looked for a change of leadership in the government.
Mani, in the autobiography released posthumously, wrote, “Two days after a bar owner raised the allegation against me, a probe was ordered by Chennithala. It looked as if they were waiting to hear an allegation. Had Chennithala considered the propriety of issuing such an order against a senior colleague like me, it (the probe) would not have happened. That I did not favour a change of leadership (in the UDF) to help Chennithala become the chief minister might have influenced the decision to order the probe. He might have seen the allegation as a stick to beat me.”
“The allegation was baseless and the bar owners had given only election funds, which is a normal practice during any poll time. A section of Congress leaders had conspired to eliminate the party, Kerala Congress. They could not stomach Kerala Congress remaining a political force in the state. The bar bribery case was the fallout of that conspiracy of Congress leaders,’’ he wrote in the autobiography.
The bar bribery scandal was a severe setback for the Congress. The solar scandal, which had simultaneously hit the UDF regime, was allegedly kept alive with the support of bar hotel owners, who had suffered losses in the UDF liquor policy.
The bar case was the main reason for the Kerala Congress (M) to distance itself from the Congress and eventually walk out of the UDF alliance. Ahead of the Assembly elections in 2021, Kerala Congress (M), led by Mani’s son Jose K Mani, had joined the CPI(M)-led LDF, thus taking away a chunk of traditional Christian votes of the UDF to the LDF. The Kerala Congress helped the LDF win several seats in central Kerala, although a breakaway faction of the Kerala Congress, led by P J Joseph, remained with the UDF.
Chennithala, who had been the Opposition leader from 2016 to 2021, had lost his prominence in the party after the rout of the UDF in 2021. Had UDF won the Assembly elections of 2021, Chennithala would have been the natural choice for the chief minister’s post.