POLITICS

Why Karnataka Took On The Supreme Court In The Cauvery Battle With Tamil Nadu

Siddaramaiah is seen as having played his cards well.

22/09/2016 2:00 PM IST | Updated 22/09/2016 2:27 PM IST
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Karnataka Chief Minister K Siddaramaiah poses for a profile shoot on September 18, 2015 in Bengaluru, India.

"How long will the farmers of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka keep fighting with each other?'' asks Chinnadurai, president of the Trichy unit of the Tamil Nadu agriculturists' association. He stayed up late on Wednesday night to catch the outcome of the Karnataka cabinet decision, to defer the release of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu.

"Tamil Nadu government should go back to Supreme court to highlight the contempt of court by Karnataka. There is frankly no point in both sides feeling angry with each other. The Centre should quickly constitute the Cauvery Management Board,'' says Chinnadurai.

There is a sense of wait and watch in the Cauvery delta in Tamil Nadu. Farmer federations point out that the Supreme court orders so far on release of water have been more than favourable to Tamil Nadu and given that the top court frowns upon violent agitations, that is the path they do not want to tread on.

"Tamil Nadu government should go back to Supreme court to highlight the contempt of court by Karnataka. There is frankly no point in both sides feeling angry with each other."

But across the Cauvery, for the first day in over two weeks, Karnataka is not in protest mode. There is a sense of visible jubilation among the politicians, having decided to take on the apex court. Chief minister Siddaramaiah, having realised that there is popular support for his decision to defer the release of water, met former chief minister SM Krishna, who had defied the Supreme court similarly in 2002, only to be pulled up for contempt of court. Krishna has already backed Siddaramaiah, calling the latest court order "perverted'' and "unimplementable''.

Siddaramaiah is seen as having played his cards well. He agreed to comply with the previous two orders to release 15000 cusecs and 12000 cusecs per day but when the court asked him to release another 6000 cusecs till 27 September, he decided to draw the line, pointing to a water bankruptcy in his reservoirs. His legal counsel is now likely to argue that Karnataka is not a habitual offender but a state that is forced by circumstances to say it can not release water any more.

Karnataka points out that the latest order has not shown even the Supreme court bench in a flattering light. When the Cauvery Supervisory Committee, after perusing through technical data on the amount of water available had asked Karnataka to release 3000 cusecs per day till 30 September, the basis on which the court doubled the water outflow while reducing the number of days is questionable. Karnataka believes the decision has been arbitrary and not based on any study of data.

Politically, Siddaramaiah has emerged a winner after the latest move. He has realised that it makes better political sense to be on the right side of the people of Bengaluru and south Karnataka, instead of the judges.

While Karnataka's farmers in the Cauvery delta have been on the warpath, the fact remains that concern for the agrarian class is mere lip sympathy. The focus of the ruling class is to ensure Bengaluru that survives on 1560 million litres of Cauvery water everyday, does not go thirsty and that there is sufficient water in the reservoirs for the city till June 2017. The present levels indicate that rationing will need to be done or Bengaluru will have to ensure it does not waste nearly 50 per cent of the Cauvery water that is pumped to the city.

Politically, Siddaramaiah has emerged a winner after the latest move. He has realised that it makes better political sense to be on the right side of the people of Bengaluru and south Karnataka, instead of the judges. From giving the impression that he was boxed in, he has manoeuvred his way to push the BJP on the back foot.

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Activists of the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike hold posters of Karnataka Chief Minister, Siddaramaiah and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa alongside donkeys during a protest in Bangalore on September 8, 2016, with regard to the Cauvery water dispute.

The BJP blundered by boycotting the all-party meeting on Wednesday because it came across looking as not party to the reluctance to give water. It is now in a catch-22 situation. If it makes amends during the special session on Friday by saying it is against releasing water to Tamil Nadu, it would only be seen as endorsing Siddaramaiah's position and make him look better in the public eye. If it does not, it will be seen as a traitor to the Karnataka cause.

The BJP blundered by boycotting the all-party meeting on Wednesday because it came across looking as not party to the reluctance to give water. It is now in a catch-22 situation.

The Cauvery dispute has a history of Prime ministerial intervention. This time, Narendra Modi kept off it because the Supreme court was hearing the case. But in the political theatre of Karnataka, by not responding to any of Siddaramaiah's letters requesting intervention or at least an appointment, PM Modi and his party have come across as not fighting for Karnataka's water interests.

In contrast, Telangana and Andhra chief ministers sat with Water Resources minister Uma Bharati on Wednesday to resolve outstanding issues. Why couldn't Modi ask Uma Bharathi to do the same with Siddaramaiah and Jayalalithaa, is what is being asked. The Congress is now contemplating leading an all-party delegation to the President of India.

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Pro-Karnataka activists wave the Karnataka flag while they participate in a motorcycle rally during a statewide strike in Bangalore on September 9, 2016.

Already the BJP has been in a spot of bother over the Mahadayi issue, where north Karnataka is engaged in a water battle with Goa. When a delegation that included BJP representatives as well as some water experts met Modi, the PM who seemed to have been briefed by Manohar Parrikar spoke in a tone that was seen as pro-Goa. Karnataka which also got an adverse ruling on Mahadayi waters, now feels the BJP has not pulled its weight with the central leadership to present its case effectively. First in Mahadayi and now on Cauvery.

With the Cauvery continuing to heat up the politics of Karnataka, the only one who can provide a ready solution is the weather God. If the north-east monsoon that usually sets over Tamil Nadu in October arrives just a bit early, a ceasefire will automatically be called over the fierce water wars.

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