How and why Congress’ selective silence on Cauvery row has betrayed Tamil interests

Whether it is the UPA or the NDA, the Centre has been reluctant to antagonise Karnataka, where Congress and BJP have stakes.
How and why Congress’ selective silence on Cauvery row has betrayed Tamil interests
How and why Congress’ selective silence on Cauvery row has betrayed Tamil interests
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There is justifiable anger in Tamil Nadu against the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre over the Cauvery issue. The state feels betrayed by the Narendra Modi government, which is trying to stall the formation of a Cauvery Management Board till the elections to Karnataka Assembly are over.

Lost in the din, however, is the studied silence of the central leadership of the Congress, which too does not want to say or do anything that would upset the chances of the party and its Chief Minister Siddaramaiah from retaining in Karnataka. Even the fact that the Congress-ruled union territory of Puducherry is also adversely affected by the stand taken by BJP-ruled Centre and Congress-ruled Karnataka has impelled any senior Congress leader, let alone AICC president Rahul Gandhi, to express any opinion on the issue.

But then this is keeping with the record of the Congress on the Cauvery issue, where time and again the party, even while in power at the Centre had leaned towards Karnataka, sometimes even displaying blatant partisanship.

The history of Congress leadership’s betrayal of Tamil interests goes all the way back to 1964, when the Centre as well as the two warring states—Karnataka (then still called Mysore) and Tamil Nadu (Madras at that time)—were ruled by the Congress.  That was the year, when Mysore government proposed to build a dam across the Hemavati, one of the tributaries of the Cauvery, much against the letter and spirit of the 1924 agreement between the two states on sharing of Cauvery water.  Though the Congress-led government in Madras raised objections, the Congress government at the Centre did not interfere.

In fact, a few years later when the construction of the dam across Hemavati was underway (the foundation stone was laid in 1968), in 1971 the Centre allocated about Rs 8 crores under non-plan expenditure for the Hemavati project. Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister at that time.

But by then Congress had been voted out of power in Tamil Nadu and the DMK had its second chief minister in M Karunanidhi. 

With Karnataka refusing to acknowledge the 1924 agreement, Tamil Nadu moved the Supreme Court for setting up of a Cauvery River Water Tribunal. Though Indira Gandhi had initially given a vague assurance on the setting up of the tribunal, the Central government opposed it in the Supreme Court arguing that the tribunal could be set up only if the Centre was convinced that the issue could not be settled through negotiations.

However, Indira Gandhi then convinced Karunanidhi to withdraw the petition from the Supreme Court (Indira Gandhi’s Congress-R had fought the 1971 elections in alliance with DMK). An attempt at a negotiated settlement was made with the setting up of a committee under the highly respected then Irrigation Minister VKRV Rao.  The negotiations seemed heading towards a settlement, when the Congress government in Karnataka backed out and the talks collapsed.

For the next decade-and-a-half, it had been a constant fight, especially during distress years, between the two states over the release of water from Krishnaraja Sagar reservoir (KRS) in Karnataka. The situation was exacerbated by Karnataka’s stand that the 1924 agreement, which was to have been in force for 50 years, had lapsed and that it was time for a fresh agreement. Tamil Nadu adopted the legally untenable stand that the agreement was still binding on the two states till a new agreement was signed.

The stand-off continued through the Prime Ministership of both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, with the Congress-ruled Centre refusing to accede to the demand for setting up of a Cauvery Disputes Tribunal. 

And it was back to Supreme Court which in May 1990 directed the Centre to set up the Tribunal, which was then notified. At the time the National Front government headed by VP Singh was at the Centre.

Fast forward to 1991. Congress government headed by Narasimha Rao in saddle at the Centre when the Tribunal, on directions from Supreme Court gives an interim order in June that year. The Tribunal directed Karnataka to release 205 tmcft of water to Tamil Nadu. But the Congress government in Karnataka, headed by S Bangarappa, issued an ordinance which says, inter alia, that the Tribunal award would not be binding on Karnataka. The Supreme Court quickly struck down the blatantly unconstitutional ordinance.

But ordinance or no ordinance, the Congress government in Karnataka refused to release the quantum of water mandated by the Tribunal award and the Congress government at the Centre remained a mute spectator.

Two years later, the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa went on a fast demanding Karnataka release the mandated quantum of water and that the Centre set up a Cauvery River Authority. On the fourth day of the fast PM Rao deputed Water Resources Minister Vidya Charan Shukla to Chennai with an assurance that the CRA would be set up soon.

The Congress government under Rao never bothered to set up the CRA, nor did the two United Front Prime Ministers. It was left to BJP's Atal Bihari Vajpayee to set up the CRA in August 2003. The CRA met six times in all though on most occasion TN was not happy with its orders. After that it went into a long hibernation.

Jump cut to February 2007. The Congress-led United Progressive Front was in power at the Centre when the Cauvery Tribunal gave its final verdict. Jayalalithaa as TN Chief Minister demanded that the award be notified and published in the Govt of India Gazette, even as Karnataka rejected the award. Jayalalithaa even went on a token fast that didn't move the Congress-led UPA govt. The Manmohan Singh government went into its second term and waited till the fag end of that term to notify the award in February 2013 - a full six years after the Tribunal delivered it. But there was no action on the final award's mandate that the Centre should set up the Cauvery Management Board. And throughout this period, DMK was an important coalition partner in the UPA, but did not exert enough pressure on the Prime Minister.

Though good monsoon ensured good supply to Tamil Nadu for two of these intervening years, the state still had to fight or beg Karnataka for water. 

But poor monsoon soon brought the water sharing issue to the fore again, Jayalalithaa, who had returned as CM in Tamil Nadu, stepped up the pressure on Manmohan Singh to convene the CRA, which had not met for nine years, seven of them under the UPA. But when the CRA met in 2012 and passed an order on distress sharing of water, Karnataka refused to comply, earning thereby the wrath of the Supreme Court.

And so, it has been through UPA years and now with the NDA that the Centre has either been ineffective or was complicit as Karnataka has refused to accept the interim order of the Tribunal, Court or CRA. Both the Congress party's central leadership and the BJP were too often protective of Karnataka interests.

Over the years, Karnataka had run through several Chief Ministers of different political hues (Congress, Janata Dal, JD-S and BJP) but the reluctance to abide by the Tribunal award remained unchanged. What also remained unchanged was the reluctance of the Centre (never mind whether it was NDA or UPA) to antagonise Karnataka, where both the Congress and BJP have stakes.

But in TN neither have any hopes of coming anywhere near forming a government.

(Views expressed are author’s own)

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