Second bar bribery: UDF wants ministers booked for corruption, Pinarayi turns his back

Leader of the Opposition V D Satheesan. Photo: Manorama

Thiruvananthapuram: The Opposition UDF on Monday disrupted Assembly proceedings after Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan refused to register a case under the Prevention of Corruption Act in the bar bribery allegation that has engulfed the LDF government.

Moving an adjournment motion in the Assembly, the UDF alleged that the government was interested only in investigating how the WhatsApp message that triggered the latest bar bribery scandal leaked and not in getting to the bottom of a criminal conspiracy involving ministers, officials and bar owners.

The leaked voice clip of a senior functionary of Federation of Kerala Hotel Association, in quite a stern manner, tells members that the Excise Policy could be altered to suit their interests only if money was paid. The members are asked to contribute at least Rs 2 lakh.

Opposition Leader V D Satheesan said the voice clip was proof that a grand corruption scheme had already been set in motion. The bar owners were already told that dry days would be withdrawn but at a price. "Ministers, officials and bar owners are involved in this criminal conspiracy. It was this conspiracy that has kicked off the collection of money," he said.

He said the government had refused to take action even though a voice clip was admissible as evidence under the Evidence Act. He quoted former deputy leader of opposition Kodiyeri Balakrishnan emphasising the legal validity of a voice clip during a debate in the assembly in 2015 when bar owner Biju Ramesh's remarks during a television debate had implicated the then finance minister K M Mani.

Congress MLA Roji M John, who moved the adjournment motion, said that nearly one-third of the money had already been mobilised on the day (May 23) the voice clip was shared in the Association's WhatsApp group. "It even mentions that someone had already paid even Rs 4 lakh," Roji said.

Satheesan insisted that a case should be registered under the Prevention of Corruption Act and a judicial enquiry ordered. He challenged the Chief Minister to give an assurance in the floor of the House. "Are you willing to register a case and order a judicial enquiry by invoking the provisions of the Prevention of Corruption Act," he said.

When Pinarayi was silent for a while, Satheesan subtly instigated him. "Normally, in situations like this, you get up and make your stand clear. But your silence now tells us that you are unwilling," he said.

Pinarayi then stood up and rejected the demand. "The Opposition has fabricated a lie to give the impression that something serious had happened," he said. "The Excise minister had approached the police just when it was known that false information was being spread in the name of a non-existent excise policy. This probe is currently on. Further action would be taken on the basis of any illegalities uncovered in this investigation," the CM said, ruling out any further probe.

In retaliation, the UDF members trooped around the base of the Speaker's dais carrying banners that blocked the Speaker's view and shouting anti-government slogans. Speaker A N Shamseer then rushed through the day's proceedings.

In addition to the corruption charge, the other major point raised by the UDF was the Tourism Department's encroachment into the domain of the Excise. Satheesan said the Excise Department was hijacked by tourism. Tourism minister P A Mohammad Riyas was the target.

"On what authority did the Tourism Director convene a meeting with stakeholders on excise policy," both Roji and Satheesan asked. They were referring to the May 23 meeting called by the Tourism Director.

Riyas intervened to say that it was just one of the many routine meetings convened by the director. "The director calls at least 40 such meetings a month and the minister need not be aware of such meetings," Riyas said. Earlier, excise minister M B Rajesh had termed the tourism director's meetings with stakeholders as routine "industry connect" meetings.

This gave the UDF more ammunition. "So the tourism minister has now admitted that the director had indeed convened such a meeting," Satheesan said. "I am repeating the question. What power does the Tourism Department have to call a meeting with the stated agenda 'Abkari policy renewal'?," he said.

The Opposition Leader then went into mock mode. "The minister says that his director will call at least 40 such meetings a month and that he was not expected to be aware of such meetings. If this is the case, what stops your director from convening a meeting to discuss the law and order situation in the capital city," he said. "If the meeting had taken place then it was with your knowledge. How can a director call a meeting to review policy without the knowledge of the minister? But if it was not with your concurrence then you are unfit to hold the office," the opposition leader said.

Earlier, while insisting that no policy discussions had taken place, excise minister Rajesh said that the first step towards formulating a new excise policy was the excise minister's meeting with stakeholders. "Such a meeting is yet to take place and is scheduled for June 12 and 13," Rajesh said.

To this, Satheesan quipped. "We understand that this was a message not for us but for the tourism minister."

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