Siddaramaiah has decided to bite the bullet. And in the process of doing so, his political stature has been elevated in Karnataka. What is ironical and politically significant is that the man who played a role in guiding him was his boss-turned-political rival, HD Deve Gowda.
The former prime minister persuaded Siddaramaiah to see the larger picture. In HD. The easier option for Karnataka would have been to comply with the Supreme Court order to release 6,000 cusecs of Cauvery water every day till 27 September. But there was a bigger game to play for higher stakes. And so, in extremely cautious and clever semantics, Siddaramaiah said Karnataka was deferring the release of water till the special session of the Karnataka assembly met on Friday and took a call on what to do next.
Technically, it is contempt of court because Karnataka has refused to go by the time schedule set by the apex court. But by not completely refusing to release water, Siddaramaiah has kept just a bit of the door open for himself to squeeze out of a difficult legal situation.
But the political grapevine is abuzz with how Cauvery has led to a regrouping of friends-turned-bitter foes. Siddaramaiah was Deve Gowda's trusted lieutenant till relations soured in 2005, when he was asked to quit as deputy chief minister. Junior Gowda, HD Kumaraswamy's movement up the JD(S) ladder meant Siddaramaiah looked for greener pastures in the Congress. That broke relations between Deve Gowda and Siddaramaiah completely, with the two looking to undercut each other at every available opportunity.
Those in the know say things changed after Siddaramaiah lost his 39-year-old son, Rakesh, to multi-organ failure in July. He became a much mellowed man, and when Gowda met him to offer condolences, the old relationship was revived to an extent. The ice was certainly broken after more than a decade.
Binding the two leaders also is the Cauvery dispute. The river and its tributaries flow in their backyard. Siddaramaiah is from Mysuru district, while Gowda hails from Hassan. Once the controversy broke, Siddaramaiah, and his irrigation minister MB Patil have been regularly in touch with Gowda, even dropping in at his residence in Bengaluru for advice.
Sources say Gowda got Siddaramaiah's favorite snack (made with raw banana) prepared when the CM called on him. And on Siddaramaiah's insistence that Gowda must attend the all-party meeting on Cauvery, the JD(S) veteran entered the Vidhana Soudha after two decades on Wednesday.
Deve Gowda at 83 has not lost any of his combative acumen. He has been quick to realise that even though restricted to south Karnataka, there is a feeling that Karnataka has been pushed around. While this is obviously not the opinion Tamil Nadu or for that matter a large part of India shares, the politician in Gowda has been able to spot an opportunity for the phoenix to rise from the Cauvery river bed.
Having Gowda on his side works well for Siddaramaiah because it helps isolate the BJP. Cauvery was the trigger, the meeting in fact, helped seal the continuation of the Congress-JD(S) alliance in the Bengaluru municipal body — the BBMP — where the two came together to keep out the largest party, the BJP, out of the power equation. The BJP was making overtures to the JD(S), but the party that has acquired the reputation of being a political freelancer has decided to work with the Congress for now.
Power in the BBMP is critical because this gives access to cash, which will be a much-needed commodity for successive assembly and Lok Sabha elections in 2018 and 2019.
Getting a former PM to back him lends strength to Siddaramaiah's ability to stand up the top court of the land. It also sends a subtle message to the Congress high command that should they try to mess with him over handling of the Cauvery issue, he can checkmate them with new-found friends.
The BJP also has been talking in terms of not releasing water to Tamil Nadu, but it did not want Siddaramaiah to walk away with the credit in Karnataka. It chose the easier option of not attending the all-party meeting on the plea that the CM did not heed the BJP's advice the first time around on 6 September.
Siddaramaiah-Gowda's next ploy will be to make the BJP commit on the floor of the Vidhana Soudha on Friday that it too backs the government. That will help Siddaramaiah emerge as the face of Karnataka, with the BJP unable to make political capital.
How does Deve Gowda gain from it?
Mandya, the ground zero of the protests is his territory, dominated by his Vokkaliga community. If the Congress government had released water, he would have criticised Siddaramaiah and won votes for his candidates. But here, he gets the chance to emerge as an elder statesman, who stood along with the CM to protect Karnataka's interests. Not to forget that this buttresses his oft-repeated claim of being a farmer leader.
Gowda also has been claiming that as PM, he solved the Narmada, Tehri and Ganga water disputes, asking why Narendra Modi cannot do the same with Cauvery. But more than anything else, the man who behaved more like the prime minister of Karnataka during his innings in the top job in 1996-97, sees in Cauvery an opportunity to arrest the slide in his party, besides emerging as a player whose opinion matters.