If KM Mani, Kerala’s finance and law minister, chairman of Kerala Congress (M) and a powerful figure in the ruling coalition, finds himself besieged for the first time in his half century in politics, it is all due to the efforts of one individual: Biju Ramesh. Ramesh, working president of the Bar Hotel Owners’ Association and head of the Rajadhani group that owns several hotels in the state, has been creating one political storm after another since last October, when he alleged that Mani had accepted Rs 1 crore as bribe from bar owners and had asked for another Rs 5 crore to reverse the government’s prohibition policy.
After trying to bluster it out, the government was forced to launch a vigilance enquiry that led to the lodging of a first information report against Mani by the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau. But this turned out to be only the beginning. Various taped conversations have since been leaked that hint at Mani allegedly accepting bribes worth crores from various trade representatives across sectors in lieu of tax breaks and other concessions in the state Budget (he has presented 12 budgets so far). The latest tapes, leaked on Wednesday evening, reveal the Bar Hotels Association state President Rajkumar Unni saying at an association meeting that if they were not allowed to reopen bars, he would reveal the names of four other Congress ministers who had accepted bribes.
Ramesh discloses in a phone conversation that he made these revelations when he got tired of politicians lying about the government’s decision to shut down bars on grounds of poor hygiene. “How can you suddenly make such a policy? I got fed up of hearing the lies peddled by politicians on TV channels,” he says in Malayalam. “When I stated the facts on TV, I was asked to provide proof. I stand by whatever I have said.”
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Mani denied the allegations and repeatedly said he was a victim of political conspiracy.
When I had met the 50-year-old at his office in Thiruvananthapuram immediately after the Oommen Chandy-led government decided to close down bars and liquor shops, he had alleged that it was because of the interference of some church leaders that 418 bars were closed, when 312 others were allowed to operate. Claiming he was a victim of communalism, the portly Ramesh had alleged that his multi-crore hotel project in Kanyakumari was stuck because he refused to pay Rs 50 lakh in bribes to the church. He maintained that Mani had toed the bishops’ line that the 418 bars, belonging to “a certain community”, should not be allowed to reopen.
A businessman in Thiruvananthapuram, who requested anonymity, says Ramesh is not “your typical abkari man”, though he has built his empire on liquor. A respected man, he runs 12 hotels, nine of which have bars, two colleges and a construction company, among others. The son of a contractor, he entered the liquor trade when he married the daughter of a prominent abkari trader, a prime accused in the Vypeen hooch tragedy that killed over 70 people. “One cannot ignore Ramesh’s claims, but you don’t know if there is an agenda,” the acquaintance adds.
In various interviews, Ramesh has said he has stopped investing in Kerala as it has become impossible to do business in the state. He is currently providing investigating authorities with evidence, and appears firm in wanting to continue with the fight, even though the government has since rolled back the decision to make Sundays dry days and allowed hotels to operate “beer and wine parlours”. The person paying the heaviest price is undoubtedly Mani, the 83-year-old politician who has continuously been re-elected from his home constituency of Palai. So far, Mani and Chandy have ignored calls for the former’s resignation. But as retired bureaucrat Babu Paul puts it, “Mani’s image has become mud on all fronts, whether it is in his party, his community (of Catholics), his constituency of 50 years or in civil society.”