There are some pretty good reasons why Prime Minister Narendra Modi isn't too enthusiastic about intervening in the Cauvery dispute, even though Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah and some Tamil Nadu leaders insist that he should.
Modi is unlikely to directly intervene in the dispute, unless the Supreme Court asks him to find a “political solution”, as it suggested to PV Narasimha Rao in 1995 when he was the prime minister.
For one thing, Modi knows that any arbitration by him at this stage stands little chance of success and is even fraught with political risks. Besides, two other prime ministers in the past — Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2002 and Manmohan Singh in 2012 — burnt their fingers trying to end the sordid dispute.
Modi is also aware that, by turning himself into an umpire in the quarrel between the two states, he may only end up giving himself a political headache he can do without. If any suggestions that he makes by way of finding a solution happen to favour Karnataka, he will open himself up to the allegation of political prejudice. The BJP has a strong presence in Karnataka and is hoping to wrest the state from the Congress in the Assembly elections in 2018.
And even if he remotely appears to side with Tamil Nadu, it will embarrass his party in Karnataka no end. In fact, the Cauvery has become the latest stick with which the BJP in Karnataka is beating Siddaramaiah.
It’s not surprising that Modi on Tuesday virtually gave both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu a polite brush-off by saying that the only course available to them is a legal one — which, of course, is a fact.
This dispute can only be solved within the legal ambit. Breaking the law is not a viable alternative: PM @narendramodi
— PMO India (@PMOIndia) September 13, 2016
Modi made this clear even to the Janata Dal (Secular) leader HD Deve Gowda who met him last week. It will be hardly a surprise if he repeats his position to Siddaramaiah as well, when the chief minister meets him, which he says he will. Siddaramaiah even says Modi should call both him and Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa for talks.
And above all, the history of prime ministerial interventions in the vexed dispute, is not a happy one, except in the case of Rao.
In 1995, Rao met with success in working out a solution when Tamil Nadu demanded an immediate release of 30 thousand million cubic feet (tmcft) of Cauvery water by Karnataka. He called the two chief ministers, Jayalalithaa and Deve Gowda, and got them to agree to a compromise figure of six tmcft.
But later, Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh had no such luck when the water in the river was scarce and Tamil Nadu made similar demands. Vajpayee was aghast to see Jayalalithaa stomp out of the meeting he called in 2002. And she refused to attend the next meeting that Vajpayee called and instead sent a minister. In 2012, it was the Karnataka chief minister Jagadish Shettar of the BJP who walked out of a meeting convened by Manmohan Singh.
Karnataka and Tamil Nadu must fight it out at the CSC and then at the Supreme Court — but not on the streets. That’s what Modi is trying to tell the two states.
While Rao’s intervention came on the advice of the Supreme Court, Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh stepped into the scene as heads of the Cauvery River Authority (CRA) which existed then. Headed by the prime minister, it had as its members the chief ministers of not only Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, but even Kerala and Puducherry that have minor stakes in the Cauvery's water.
If Modi intervenes now, he has to do it on his own. The Supreme Court hasn’t — at least till now — advised him to talk to the two warring chief ministers. And nor does the CRA exist.
The CRA has made way for the Cauvery Supervisory Committee (CSC) which, headed by the Union water resources secretary, consists of the chief secretaries of the four states, besides officials of the Central Water Commission.
It’s this CSC that comes in handy for Modi to cite as a good reason to excuse himself from a direct participation in the Cauvery dialogue. As asked by the Supreme Court, the committee is already looking into the matter.
Modi will rely on supervisory committee
On 5 September, the court asked Karnataka to release 15,000 cusecs (cubic feet per second) for 10 days. That would have amounted to some 13 tmcft. On 12 September, the court modified the release to 12,000 cusecs till 20 September, which would give Tamil Nadu approximately five tmcft more. Tamil Nadu wanted 20,000 cusecs as an interim arrangement.
The court is coming up with interim water release schedules till it gives a final ruling on Tamil Nadu’s demand for 50 tmcft. Now the CSC is trying to work out how much water Karnataka must release from 20 September onwards. The court is expected to rely heavily on the committee’s conclusions. And so will Modi.
Tamil Nadu considers the water being released now to be chickenfeed and is awaiting the court’s final ruling. Karnataka says it is releasing water at a huge cost to its farmers and can’t part with even a drop more. Tamil Nadu’s need is real, although its demand is too high to meet, if you look at the quantum of water available. Karnataka’s crisis too is indeed grave. And the CSC is the right forum to decide on the issue after taking a close look at rainfall deficiency, water availability, the needs of the two states and the 2007 award of the Cauvery tribunal.
Karnataka and Tamil Nadu must fight it out at the CSC and then at the Supreme Court — but not on the streets.
That’s what Modi is trying to tell the two states.
The author tweets @sprasadindia