An interesting anecdote from the mid-80s when Ramakrishna Hegde and MG Ramachandran were Chief Ministers of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu respectively, is a 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 particular period of Cauvery crisis, the Karnataka CM was not at home, and Hegde's mother offered MGR water to drink.
“Ask your son to release Cauvery water first as our crop is drying,” MGR is believed to have said.
When Hegde arrived, his mother told him the reason MGR was refusing to drink water at their home. The same night, Hegde released water to Tamil Nadu.
In the last week of January 2018, TN Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami wrote to Siddaramaiah, his counterpart in Karnataka, to request a meeting over Cauvery. But the Karnataka Chief Minister who has been busy both with electioneering and the Budget Session of the Assembly, did not reach out to schedule a meeting. Those in the know say that since the Cauvery verdict was expected in February, Siddaramaiah did not see any point in making promises to TN. The Karnataka side, after the judgement, would be happy he did not meet EPS and come under pressure to release water and risk Kannadiga wrath.
The two instances are a pointer to how the complicated Cauvery problem needed a statesman-like and out-of-the-box approach. Hegde and MGR had it in ample measure, while EPS did not show the foresight to do an MGR. Siddaramaiah on his part, was more content playing to the Kannadiga gallery two months before the elections.
But while EPS is facing criticism in Tamil Nadu due to the reduction in the share of water, Siddaramaiah has every reason to guffaw. The Cauvery verdict is a shot in the arm for the Congress ahead of elections, especially in the south Karnataka region. This is where the party is locked in a direct electoral contest with HD Deve Gowda's JD (S). Siddaramaiah's strategy will be to ride on the euphoria of having protected the interests of farmers in the Cauvery delta in the Supreme Court.
For long, the farmers in the Cauvery delta have been aggrieved with lack of water for irrigation purposes as the water had to be diverted to Bengaluru for drinking water purposes. This meant, area under cultivation was severely curtailed. This had led to farmer suicides, with 258 of the 1560 farmers who killed themselves in 2015-16 just from the two Cauvery districts of Mandya and Mysuru. In September 2016, Siddaramaiah was pilloried as being anti-farmer for releasing water under pressure from the Supreme Court to Tamil Nadu.
All that could change now. It is not just the caste card that Siddaramaiah can play now. He can also reach out to woo an umbrella Cauvery vote bank, under which every farmer, farm labourer and those indirectly associated with the agriculture economy will be embraced.
The Cauvery verdict will also come in handy for Siddaramaiah to corner the BJP over Mahadayi. The CM will showcase his achievement in getting more Cauvery water than was given by the Tribunal in 2007 and blame the BJP government in Goa for not releasing Mahadayi water for drinking water purpose in north Karnataka districts.
But the biggest political gain for the Congress could be in Bengaluru. This city, with 28 Assembly constituencies, is where the Congress was seen to be on the backfoot thanks to civic woes. From potholes to traffic issues to alleged corruption in the steel flyover project to burning lakes, Bengaluru has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The feeling on the ground so far has been that this would impact the ruling party electorally, more so because the party, along with the JD (S), also controls the municipal corporation. The BJP after having done well in the urban areas in Gujarat, was looking to repeat the feat in Karnataka, especially in Bengaluru.
4.75 TMC feet of Cauvery water exclusively for the “global city” of Bengaluru has handed Siddaramaiah a lifeline. The Congress can sell it as an achievement, especially in the areas that have seen water shortage for some years now.
At the same time, however, Siddaramaiah as a responsible leader must use this opportunity to send across the message – both to his bureaucratic machinery and the citizens – that water is a finite source and that Bengalureans need to care for and safeguard their fast depleting water bodies.
Add to this the Supreme court directive that the Cauvery Management Board to supervise the release of Cauvery water on a monthly basis should be set up in six weeks. Siddaramaiah and farmer associations have consistently opposed the formation of such a Board and will push for delaying it. But now that the BJP government at the Centre will be compelled to follow the court order, it will provide the Congress with another issue to target the saffron party with.
Views expressed are the author's own.