Karnataka bandhs put BJP in uncomfortable position as Congress leverages Mahadayi issue
As the date for assembly elections in Karnataka draws closer, both the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are using state-wide bandhs to settle political scores in the poll-bound state. After Congress extended support to twin bandhs proposed by pro-Kannada groups and farmer organisations on dates that coincide with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah’s rallies in the state, the saffron party has called for a counter bandh between 10-12 February, when Congress president Rahul Gandhi will be visiting the state.
BJP on the back foot
The state unit of the BJP had earlier alleged that the two bandhs were backed by Congress chief minister Siddaramaiah to pressurise the central government to ensure the resolution of the Mahadayi river water sharing dispute. Shah is to hold a rally on 25 January in Mysuru, which coincides with a state-wide bandh, while Modi will arrive in Bengaluru on 4 February – the day of the state capital bandh – for BJP’s Parivartan Yatra valedictory function.
These bandhs have put the BJP under tremendous pressure, since either of the two leaders skipping their respective rallies will send the wrong signal to BJP supporters in the state. What makes Modi’s visit crucial is that, with this rally, he will kick start the party’s election campaign in the state. Hoping to end Congress’ rule in the state, BJP is banking on Modi and Shah to boost its prospects in the state where the Grand Old Party too is on a strong wicket.
Though Siddaramaiah has claimed that he does not support any such bandh, members of his party have openly supported the farmers’ organisations on this issue.
The two bandhs have been called by Vatal Nagaraj, President of the Confederation of Pro-Kannada Organisations, who claims that the twin bandhs are being organised in support of farmers who for decades have been demanding a resolution of the Mahadayi water dispute.
The protesters, who have organised similar bandhs in the past, have been demanding the Prime Minister’s intervention in the matter, considering the dispute between Karnataka, Goa, and Maharashtra has gone on for the past three decades. With no resolution of the crisis in sight, the farmers from Karnataka’s drought prone districts, particularly Gadag, Dharwad, Belagavi, Haveri, and Bagalkot have raised the banner of revolt against the central government to end the crisis.
Meanwhile, differences have begun to surface amongst the protesting groups, with a section claiming that it is becoming pointless to have these bandhs. They cite previous instances of similar bandhs leading to no breakthrough in the existing crisis. They are also of the opinion that such bandhs cause inconvenience to the common man, with none of the political parties willing to resolve the Mahadayi water sharing crisis.
The Mahadayi River Dispute
The Mahadayi River originates in Karnataka before entering Goa and Maharashtra, and the three states have been locked in a bitter battle for the last three decades. It was only in 1985 that the central government intervened to resolve the crisis. However, in 2002, the water sharing issue turned into a full-blown crisis when then Chief Minister of Karnataka SM Krishna built canals over the two tributaries of Mahadayi – Kalasa and Banduri.
The aim was to divert water from Mahadayi to Malaprabha river to meet the drinking water demands of some of the drought prone districts of the state. However, the move was opposed by then Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar, who claimed that the proposal could be ecologically disastrous for the Western Ghats of the coastal state. Since the NDA government was in power at the Centre, Parrikar’s arguments were given precedence and the project was stalled.
Earlier in December, Parrikar met with Shah and BS Yeddyurappa and had renewed discussions on the issue, later even sending a letter to Yeddyurappa assuring him that the Goa government would not oppose the water sharing agreement. This led to widespread criticism from the opposition, after which Parrikar denied reports of him meeting Siddaramaiah to resolve the crisis.
This has led to a pitched political battle in the state, with the Congress accusing the BJP of not doing enough to ensure water for those living in these drought prone regions. Karnataka has been demanding 7.56 thousand million cubic feet of water to ensure regular water supply to
the parched districts of Belagavi and Gadag.
Those protesting have reiterated that BJP, which is in power at both the Centre and in Goa, should resolve the crisis. However, they acknowledge that the issue is also being used by Congress to settle political scores in the run up to the polls. It is for this reason that Yeddyurappa is trying to convince protestors to end their agitation, an attempt that has seemingly failed. Karnataka goes to polls in April-May 2018 to elect 224 legislators, a battle which will see the Congress and BJP face off for control of the southern state.