Bangalore: The flare-up in the dispute over sharing the water of the Cauvery river with Tamil Nadu is pushing the Congress in Karnataka on the backfoot as assembly elections are only a few months away. Though the dispute dates back to the pre-Independence period, the problem for the already troubled Congress in the state is that the party is leading the central government, which has to take a stand that mainly pleases Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
Kerala and Puducherry also have claims to the Cauvery water, but the dispute is intense between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, particularly over the quantum to be shared during times of distress caused by a monsoon failure, like this year. The Cauvery river rises in Talacauvery in Kodagu district in Karnataka and flows 800 km eastward through Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry and into the Bay of Bengal. Of its total length, 320 km are in Karnataka and 416 km in Tamil Nadu.
The trouble for the Karnataka Congress is compounded as it has four members in the union ministry, three of them of cabinet rank - External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna, Labour Minister Mallikarjun Kharge and Corporate Affairs Minister M. Veerappa Moily, who also holds the power portfolio. The fourth representative is K. H. Muniyappa, the minister of state for railways.
The dispute is pushing the Congress in Karnataka on the backfoot as assembly elections are only a few months away.
The state Congress leaders have taken a firm stand against release of water to the neighbouring state in view of the severe drought in Karnataka and are backing the state's Bharatiya Janata Party government. Despite this stand, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, as head of the Cauvery River Authority (CRA), Wednesday directed Karnataka to release 9,000 cusecs of water daily to Tamil Nadu till Oct 15.
Karnataka Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar, who attended the meeting in New Delhi, opposed the decision and walked out. The others attending the meeting were Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa and representatives of Kerala and Puducherry. The dispute would now go back to the Supreme Court, on whose direction the CRA meeting was held.
Manmohan Singh's decision places the state Congress in a piquant situation as it has little option but to oppose it. Otherwise the party would give another stick to the BJP, as well as the opposition Janata Dal-Secular, to hammer it when elections are approaching. The Congress is already under heavy attack from the BJP and the JD-S over what they allege is the party's and its central ministers' failure to get large central aid for drought relief.
The state has declared over 150 of the state's 176 taluks (revenue sub-divisions) as drought hit. Nearly 50 of the drought-hit taluks fall in the Cauvery basin area. The Cauvery basin area in Karnataka comprises six districts - Chamarajanagar, Chikmagalur, Hassan, Kodagu, Mandya and Mysore. Of these, Hassan, Mandya and Mysore have become JD-S strongholds. The BJP is making a determined bid to capture the area, while the Congress is struggling to re-establish its supremacy as the three districts send 57 members to the 225-member Karnataka assembly.
The state Congress, though caught in intense infighting with various caste groups seeking a dominant role in the state unit, was still hoping to recapture power as the BJP rule in Karnataka has been scarred by various corruption scandals. Any wavering by the state Congress in the stand against release of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu would dim its prospects, though not bright in view of the central government's own scandals coupled with the recent decision to allow FDI in multi-brand retail, the diesel price hike and the cap on subsidized cooking gas cylinders.
Elections are due in May next but may be held in December along with Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. At present the BJP has 120 members including the speaker, the Congress 71, JDS 26 and Independents six. One seat is vacant. Of the assembly's 225 members, 224 are elected and one is nominated to represent the Anglo-Indian community.