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Church Versus The Left In Kerala

As the Chengannur bypoll hangs in the balance, the Church locks horns with the Kerala government over reopening of bars

The Catholic Church in Kerala has sounded the war cry against the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government for its decision to reopen bars in all panchayats in Kerala which have a population of more than ten thousand.

The first real battle in what looks like an all out war will be played out at the upcoming Chengannur bypolls to the state assembly. The Church had said that it would reach out to voters with the message that the government has cheated them with the false promise of a phased liquor prohibition, made before the last Assembly elections.

It has threatened to galvanise the electorate against the LDF candidate Saji Cheriyan, himself a Christian, hoping to send across a strong message to the state government.

Chengannur is a sitting seat of the LDF and if lost, will be a huge morale beating for the Pinarayi Vijayan government even if it means no change in a state Assembly where the Left coalition enjoys a comfortable majority.

Mar Remigiose Inchananiyil is the Bishop of the Thamarassery eparchy of the Syro Malabar Catholic Church, the strongest in terms of its numbers and political influence in the state. Catholics form the largest denomination of the 18 percent odd Christian community in the state of which the Syro-Malabar church is the largest representative.

The Syro-Malabar Church alone claims to have some 30 to 35 lakh followers whereas the total Christian population in Kerala is around a crore. With them up in arms, smaller groups are likely to follow suit.

Inchananiyil who has always been in the fore front of the anti-liquor fight is now the latest thorn in the flesh for the Left government.

The bishop has made it very clear that the fight will be taken from Thamarassery diocese which is in the northern part of Kerala down to the central part of the state where Chengannur, the latest political flash point is located.

“This government has betrayed the mandate of the people. The promise they had given in the manifesto before the Assembly elections was that they will take all the measures to bring down the use of alcohol and fight for abstinence. But they are doing exactly opposite of that which means they are cheating the people. We will now take the issue to the people in Chengannur. Let the electorate decide,’’ Bishop Inchananiyil told The Lede.

LDF’s Double Game?

The Church claims that it has successfully called the bluff of the government when it comes to playing a double game in its liquor policy and that it would now spend time in exposing it to the people of the state.

The Church seems to have a point too. The high-pitched campaign that the coalition had unleashed close to the Assembly elections in 2016 where some of the prominent faces in Mollywood like actor KPSC Lalitha and actor turned legislator Innocent were roped into doing promotional campaign videos with the tag, “LDF will come, everything will be made fine” all spoke of the ill-effects of alcohol consumption, the need to prohibit it and how if the LDF comes to power will salvage the poor of the state from the evils of alcohol.

But once in power the government seems to have forgotten its promise. In June 2017 the State Governor inked an ordinance whereby the permission for starting a bar or a liquor outlet in the state became the sole discretion of the state government. The panchayat or the municipality of the area no more had any say in this.

That this ordinance came months before the latest Supreme Court judgment leaving it to the government to decide whether to reopen closed bars in those panchayats with more than ten thousand population makes the Church smell a rat.

The Church feels that the government had brought about the changes in the Panchayat Act with the ordinance to bolster its case at the apex court which it finally earned in its favour. The Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council (KCBC) the most powerful body of Catholic Priests in the state say this is against the basic idea of prohibition.

“The state might say that there are only reopening closed bars and not starting new ones. But how can one trust a government which is now making the Supreme Court relaxation an excuse for reopening the bars and even before that pass an ordinance taking away the local bodies right to self determination. If you are aiming at actual prohibition shouldn’t you give the local people a chance to give up on alcohol by leaving it to the panchayat to decide whether bars should be reopened or not? Why are you curtailing their rights? This is the message we are planning to take the electorate of Chengannur,’’ Father Varghese Vallikadan, spokesperson of the KCBC told The Lede.

No Alcohol No Money?

However there are two arguments that the state puts forward as to why it wants to reopen the bars and get more relaxed with its liquor policy.

One is the economic argument that the revenue earned from the sale of liquor has been the highest source of income for the state for many years. Secondly it argues that liquor is a much needed component of the tourism industry which is the second biggest revenue churner in the state.

Both, the government says, have suffered severe losses post 2014 till 2017 when the phased prohibition was on. The government says that its revenue share from liquor sales had dipped considerably and the number of tourists too has reduced after the prohibition started.

But Bishop Inchananiyil says such losses mean little when weighed against the social stigma that alcohol had brought about in Kerala over the last quarter of a century.

“If the government thinks the easiest way to collect money is by making people drink more alcohol, then isn’t that outright exploitation? You should understand that they are exploiting the poor illiterate masses more than the rich people by doing this. If you bring in the argument of tourism, take the example of Gujarat. Isn’t tourism thriving in Gujarat in spite of a total prohibition?’’ asks Inchananiyil.

The revenue fall argument of the government does not have many takers among the pro prohibition activists either. Johnson Edayaranmula has three decades of experience in working as a prohibition activist and runs an NGO called the Alcohol and Drug Information Center.

He says that the numbers of the government itself shows that sales might have dropped but revenue from alcohol has hardly been hit due to the phased prohibition as other factors have kept it going.

“From 2014 onwards over the last three years since the control policy came into being, even when more than 1100 bars closed down, the revenue actually didn’t take a dip simply because more wine and beer parlours were opened, the price of liquor was hiked, the tax was increased and even a cess was introduced. This only a lame excuse because the government is not ready to take steps which will hit the liquor industry hard,’’ says Edayaranmula.

UDF Sees A Political Coup In Chengannur

The Church’s strong disagreement and the KCBC’s open defiance is something the Congress-led UDF candidate hopes to gain from at Chengannur.

D Vijayakumar who is the UDF Congress candidate says the existing scenario is favorable for the party that aims to wrest the Chengannur seat from the Left. Congress has traditionally had the upper hand in Chengannur till the Left won it in 2016.

“Amidst all the other issues, the liquor policy of the government will certainly backfire for the LDF candidate here. Even the chief minister has said that this bypoll will be a mandate on the government’s performance. So we will tell the people how this government has cheated them with their liquor policy. After all it’s the UDF who has always been pro-prohibition and we will benefit from it,’’ says Vijayakumar.

But it will not be so easy given the demography of the Christian population in Chengannur. Firstly, the Catholics have very less representation in the constituency even though the Christian community as a whole does have a big say.

This is because central Kerala including the districts of Kottayam, Pathanamthitta and Alapuzha are predominantly filled with Orthodox and Marthoma Christians, two denominations which have not been as vocal on the prohibition issue as the Catholics.

“I don’t think this will have enough power to actually cause an upset for the LDF. The Catholic churches are very few in numbers in the region. After the Nairs (Hindu caste), the orthodox and the Marthoma are the bigger communities in the region. Without them openly denouncing the liquor policy, the Left can feel safe,’’ says Roy Mathew, veteran journalist from the area.

But the Catholic church strongly refutes that. “It does not matter if Catholics are less there. Both the orthodox and Marthoma have not said anything in support of the government policy. When such issues come, the church will stand as one. It’s not just for one section of people. It’s everyone’s problem beyond religion and caste,’’ added Father Vallikadan.

This defiance could actually put the Left candidate is on a sticky wicket especially in a three way fight with the BJP too having a strong presence in Chengannur especially with the RSS having worked on the ground for a number of years.

CR Neelakandan is the state convernor for the Aam Admi Party (AAP) and he has been camping in Chengannur to study the political situation in the area. Though AAP is yet to decide whether to contest, Neelakandan says Chengannur will be an exciting contest that everyone would like to be a part of.

“It is true that the Catholic community does not have such a huge influence in Chengannur but in such a three way race where the margin of victory can be a few thousands only even a minor shift in the vote share can cause dramatic results. Already the UDF has an advantage because of a number of anti-people policies of the Pinarayi Vijayan government. That could get amplified with the liquor policy too now being criticised,’’ Neelakandan told The Lede.

But the Left candidate Saji Cheriyan, himself a Christian from the orthodox church sounds confident of pulling through and retaining the seat which his deceased fellow MLA had left vacant.

“There are a number of development projects which our MLA had started and the people would surely elect me so that it continues. The issue of bars is a non-issue here. Already we have told the church also that the government is ready for talks. So there is no reason for the electorate to vote against a party they had voted two years ago,’’ says Saji Cheriyan.

Cheriyan’s words that the government is open for talks are likely an attempt to mollify the church. The Left knows that the battle in Chengannur could be won with the help of the Nairs and a section of the orthodox votes. But when it comes to the battle for Lok Sabha 2019 across the entire state, an anti-catholic church stand could have far reaching consequences for the front’s electoral prospects.

Especially when the BJP is going all out to woo the Christian vote to go with a consolidation of the Hindu votebank, it is doubly important for the LDF to keep happy, the minority electorate and those who decide their voting patterns in the days to come.

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