Uttarakhand: Did liquor cartel try to topple Rawat to stop Dennis the menace?
- Liquor lobby has been behind past political crises in Uttarakhand. It could be the same this time
- A brand - Dennis - rose meteorically under Harish Rawat. This incensed rival companies
- They tried to counter Rawat legally, but failed. Could they have ganged up to topple his govt?
- Uttarakhand\'s liquor politics
- Which Congress leader did the liquor cartel hire to take on Rawat?
A tweaked version of a popular body spray commercial is doing the rounds in Uttarakhand these days.
"Aur kya chal raha hai? (What's going on these days?)," people ask each other.
"Desh mein fog chal raha hai aur Uttarakhand mein Dennis (There's fog in the country and Dennis in Uttarakhand)" comes the reply.
Dennis is the most popular liquor brand in the state these days.
This local version of the advertisement could be symptomatic of the ongoing political crisis plaguing Uttarakhand. Though it's just a rumour, it seems to be an informed one.
The trouble began last month when the revolt of 9 Congress MLAs reached the Supreme Court.
There are three parties to the dispute: the Harish Rawat-led Congress government, the 9 rebel MLAs and BJP, the principal opposition party.
Rawat has not explained why his MLAs were alienated. The dissidents have also not bothered to spell out their reasons for toppling an elected government and endangering their Vidhan Sabha membership just a year before the completion of the Assembly's five-year term.
The rumour mill continues to churn various theories regarding the current political crisis. There are whispers in the power corridors that every party is hiding the truth. Going by the recent political history of Uttarakhand, there has been a liquor trade connection behind almost every political upheaval in the state.
In November 2012, prominent state leader Sukhdev Singh Namdhari was jailed for the murder of famous liquor baron Ponty Chadha. Namdhari was appointed as the chairman of the state minority commission by the BJP government. The murder was said to be the result of a rivalry emanating out of the liquor business.
Chadha is alleged to have been given undue favours by the BJP government headed by Ramesh Pokhriyal 'Nishank'.
Harish Rawat replaced Vijay Bahuguna as the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand in February 2014 after intense infighting within the state party unit. Rawat brought Gujarat cadre IAS officer Mohammed Shahid from Delhi to Dehradun. He was appointed as the all-powerful OSD to Rawat.
Last July, Shahid was embroiled in a controversy after an alleged sting video showed him talking business with some liquor traders. He was purportedly heard advising these businessmen whom to trust in the CM's office and who should not be paid bribes.
The 15-minute video was a blow to the reputation of the Harish Rawat government. It indicated how the liquor mafia had spread its tentacles in the top echelons of power in Dehradun.
As the data suggests, the state has a booming liquor business. The state government earned Rs 3,958.55 lakh from the sale of alcohol in 2011-12. The figure went up to Rs 10,3993.58 lakh in 2013-14.
Revenue (in lakhs)
The rise of Dennis
A beverage company has particularly profited from the growing alcohol trade during the past year or two. It is the same company that produces the Dennis brand of wine. The brand has been riding the popularity graph ever since Harish Rawat took charge. Regular drinkers know how Dennis wine has virtually wiped out all other brands from the liquor shops in the state.
The task of liquor distribution was assigned to the Uttarakhand Mandi Parishad by Harish Rawat. On the surface, it appeared that the state government was trying to break the monopoly of various liquor syndicates by handing out this responsibility to a state agency. In reality, many say the decision was aimed at favoring a specific company.
Other liquor companies were bemused by the meteoric rise of the Dennis brand in the Uttarakhand market. The Confederation of Indian Alcoholic Beverage Companies (CIABC) even wrote a complaint letter to the state Chief Secretary. The liquor distributors knocked the doors of the Nainital High Court when their grievance went unheeded.
On 26 November, 2015, the High Court passed an interim verdict asking the government to place the order for all types of brands before the liquor suppliers for the month of December 2015. The decision mandated that the sales figures of December 2014 should be the criteria for the government order.
The facts highlighted in the Uttarakhand High Court judgment reflect the extent of monopolisation of the liquor trade in Uttarakhand.
Delivering a verdict on writ petition no 2932 of 2015 filed by M/s United Spirits Limited against the state-run Uttarakhand Mandi Parishad, Justice UC Dhyani observed, "It is also submitted that the arbitrary and illegal acts of respondent no. 1 (Uttarakhand Mandi Parishad) have resulted in the market sales of the petitioners' IMFL (Indian Made Foreign Liquor) brand dropping from 3,56,106 cases (during the months of August-October, 2014) to 10,776 cases (during the months of August- October 2015) leading to an approximate fall from 61% to 2%. This establishes that the Respondent No. 1 is favoring and promoting IMFL brands with lower demand as compared to the IMFL brands of the petitioners."
However, liquor companies were forced to file a case of contempt of court as the court order was not followed.
The battle for domination among alcohol beverage companies in Uttarakhand had peaked by now. While Harish Rawat government was allegedly promoting the Dennis brand, the United Spirits Limited hired P Chidambaram, a senior leader from Rawat's own party, to plead its case.
Most liquor companies are known to keep the political establishment in good humour. They oblige leaders from top to bottom. Surely, these companies are no saints and the government can control several of their illegal deeds if it chooses to. This is the reason no wine manufacturing enterprise can afford to take on the establishment. In fact, these companies know how to use money power to win favours from political masters.
Many allege that Harish Rawat was unduly benevolent towards one particular company. This was not acceptable to the other companies who had also invested heavily in keeping the government on their side.
Few leaders and analysts are ready to openly voice this conclusion.
Liquor companies were facing a 'do or die' situation as all legal and political options had already failed. Could it be that the same nexus of liquor traders tried to ensure the downfall of the government to save their revenues?
If the companies can hire a lawyer of Chidambaram's stature against the Rawat government, it would not be difficult for them to entice MLAs by throwing money.
This is an inference based on the analysis of the circumstances. But Harish Rawat owes many answers to the people of the state. Why did he continue to favour a particular liquor company despite court orders? The rebel MLAs must also clarify what forced them to risk their Vidhan Sabha membership in the last year of the current assembly term. The BJP too needs to answer why it went overboard in trying to topple the Uttarakhand government.
Ironically, the promoter of the Dennis brand is a company called Rock & Storm Distilleries Pvt Limited. Could it be the real reason behind the political 'storm' in the mountainous state of Uttarakhand?
Edited by Aditya Menon