Siddaramaiah has fired from Karnataka's shoulder. By getting the entire political spectrum of the state to unanimously agree to defy the Supreme Court order to release 6,000 cusecs of Cauvery water, the chief minister has put the judges in a quandary. The Karnataka Assembly and council passed a resolution on Friday that the Cauvery water should be used only for drinking purposes in Bengaluru and the Cauvery basin. Should Tamil Nadu approach the court, pointing to contempt of court, the bench will have to decide how fair would it be to haul up the CM or the Karnataka chief secretary for it.
Rewind to a week ago when Siddaramaiah was being pilloried for having fiddled while Bengaluru, or at least parts of it, burnt with protesters indulging in arson and violence. By agreeing to release water — first 15,000 cusecs per day, then 12,000 cusecs per day — against the wishes of the Kannadigas, he had become as much a villain in the eyes of the people of the Cauvery basin as his counterpart, Jayalalithaa.
Not any longer. Altruism does not work in politics, and Siddaramaiah decided that it made political sense to defy the Supreme Court. The Congress also realised that agreeing to release water to Tamil Nadu was denting its political capital in south Karnataka, one of the politically most important regions of the state.
That is when the strategy on how to play an innings on a minefield of a track was worked out. Siddaramaiah was clear that if he went down, he will take everyone down with him. So the all-party meeting was to the first salvo to be fired. By then, a channel of communication had been opened up with former prime minister HD Deve Gowda, who was more than keen to be seen as a champion of farmers in Karnataka. The all-party meeting went according to script and unanimously told the CM that no water should be released to Tamil Nadu.
Any politically immature and reckless politician would have rode on the resolution and told Tamil Nadu, sorry, not a drop to spare. But Siddaramaiah decided to buy time. That was a tactically brilliant move. His Cabinet decided to defer the release of water till a special session of both the Karnataka Assembly and Legislative Council met on 23 September. Technically, this meant his government was not refusing to let go of 6,000 cusecs every day; he only wanted 48 more hours. Even the Tamil Nadu government decided to wait and watch.
Now that the lawmakers have spoken in one voice against release of water, citing drought conditions in Karnataka, it pits all of Karnataka vs the Supreme Court. Can the top court haul all the MLAs and MLCs for backing a decision that is contempt of court?
Another battle is taking place in the court as well. Angering Karnataka leaders more is Tamil Nadu's objection to the Cauvery Supervisory Committee. Chennai has said that Karnataka needs to release 17.5 tmc. It only led to a hardening of positions as Karnataka has said it has only 27.6 tmc left in its four reservoirs.
Tamil Nadu is likely to highlight the contempt of court by Karnataka on Monday. Karnataka government's lawyers concede they will face a tough time in court and say the Supreme court will not take kindly to Bengaluru's defiance. They point to the possibility of the court asking Siddaramaiah to present himself and getting a dressing down. Another option is for the court to ask the Centre and the Cauvery Supervisory committee to take charge of the reservoirs and release the water.
There is precedent in the same dispute. In 2002, then Karnataka chief minister SM Krishna was pulled up by the Supreme court for a similar offence. Using very strong language, the bench had then said: "If an elected government says because of law and order problem, it cannot comply with our order, then let it go. You have come to that. These man-made situations to flout court orders should stop. You get political mileage out of it and we will not allow that. You have no regard for our orders. If state governments play to the emotions of the people and violate court orders, then God help this country.'"
But nothing much happened subsequently, and the court finally closed the matter six years later, after Krishna apologised.
Altruism does not work in politics, and Siddaramaiah decided that it made political sense to defy the Supreme Court.
Siddaramaiah is taking a chance, knowing fully well that he can tap into the public resentment against the court order. His counsel might also ask the same bench to review its order to release 6,000 cusecs. But should the judges take this further than what they did with Krishna, they will only end up helping the CM politically.
Siddaramaiah has tried to protect himself by saying this is the view of the legislature and not that of the executive. But that may not cut ice with the judiciary.
Opinion divided over the situation could precipitate to another situation where the court will direct the Centre to dismiss Karnataka and seek compliance of its order under President's rule. It looks highly unlikely given that the court itself takes a dim view of misuse of Article 356.
An interesting anecdote from the mid-80s when Ramakrishna Hegde and MG Ramachandran (Karnataka and Tamil Nadu respectively) were chief ministers, is an interesting pointer to the affable manner in which politics was then practised.
The story according to Tamil media reports of that time goes that when MGR landed at Hegde's residence in Bengaluru during a similar Cauvery crisis, the Karnataka CM was not at home and Hegde's mother offered MGR water to drink. MGR is then believed to have said, "Ask your son to release Cauvery water first as our crop is drying.''
When Hegde arrived, his mother told him the reason for MGR refusing to drink water at their home. That same night, Hegde released water to Tamil Nadu.
Meanwhile, Jayalalithaa was admitted to the hospital in Chennai after suffering from dehydration and fever. Worried AIADMK cadres assembled outside the Apollo Hospital, blaming the dehydration on Karnataka's refusal to give water.
Will Siddaramaiah do a Ramakrishna Hegde and ensure that Jayalalithaa and Tamil Nadu stay hydrated?