The bandh in Karnataka on Friday over the state’s Cauvery water dispute with Tamil Nadu brought political fissures around the contentious issue back to the fore.

The Bharatiya Janata Party has attempted to harness the contestations between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to put the rival INDIA bloc’s constituents in a spot. However, there remain contradictions in the stance taken by the BJP’s units in both states.

The latest tensions

The distribution of Cauvery river’s water has been a long-standing dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The Cauvery is a major source of drinking and irrigation water for millions of people in both states. To this end, the Supreme Court had in 2018 ordered creation of the Cauvery Water Management Authority and the Cauvery Water Regulation Committee as regulators.

Since August, these regulators have directed Karnataka’s Congress government to release thousands of cusecs of water, or cubic feet per second, every day to Tamil Nadu for weeks. This was following requests for more water from Tamil Nadu, which is governed by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

The Karnataka government has had to adhere to the Supreme Court’s directive to obey the Cauvery Water Management Authority and release 5,000 cusecs of water per day to Tamil Nadu. It had also fulfilled its obligation of releasing 10,000 cusecs of Cauvery river water every day between August 12 and August 26.

This was even as the state’s Deputy Chief Minister DK Shivakumar described it as a “big pain”. In a letter to the Centre, the Karnataka government had previously expressed its inability to meet the demands citing deficit rainfall.

On Tuesday, the Cauvery Water Regulatory Committee asked the Karnataka government to release another 3,000 cusecs to Tamil Nadu for 18 days starting Thursday. But, a day later, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah said that his government will challenge this directive in the Supreme Court.

Friday’s state-wide bandh was led by Kannada Okkuta – an umbrella organisation comprising Kannada nationalist groups – to protest Karnataka releasing water to Tamil Nadu. There was a similar bandh on Tuesday.

Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah (right) with his deputy DK Shivakumar. Credit: PTI
Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah (right) with his deputy DK Shivakumar. Credit: PTI

BJP vs INDIA alliance

The BJP has not only backed the protests, but also attempted to put INDIA bloc’s constituents – the Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam – in a spot.

On Tuesday, Tejasvi Surya, BJP’s Lok Sabha member from Bangalore South, claimed that the Congress was “trying to favour their INDIA alliance partner”.

“Yesterday, the Cauvery Water Management Authority directed Karnataka to release 3,000 cusecs of water, it was an adverse order against the state [government] of Karnataka but the [deputy chief minister] went on record welcoming the judgement and said we are happy,” Surya alleged. “...The intention of [the deputy chief minister] to protect its INDIA alliance partner in DMK is precariously pushing the farmers of Karnataka and the drinking water needs of Karnataka to a perilous point.”

The BJP’s Tamil Nadu unit chief K Annamalai made similar claims on Monday. “The DMK should clarify whether it is ruling for the welfare of the people of the state [Tamil Nadu] or for the alliance parties,” Annamalai said. “Just because the Congress government in Karnataka is its ally, the DMK is trying to blame the Union government.”

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Karnataka’s Congress government have sought the prime minister’s intervention.

File image: BJP’s Bommai and ally Janata Dal (Secular)'s HD Kumaraswamy, among other leaders, during a protest. Credit: PTI
File image: BJP’s Bommai and ally Janata Dal (Secular)'s HD Kumaraswamy, among other leaders, during a protest. Credit: PTI

BJP’s internal views

At the same time, the BJP’s units in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu also hold opposing views on the issue. “Cauvery is born in Karnataka and because of the catchment area in Karnataka, all these years, they are getting the water,” said BJP leader Basavaraj Bommai on September 23. “So it is not even the property of Tamil Nadu. Is it a property of Tamil Nadu? It is because Karnataka has saved this water by building dams. At the cost of Karnataka, they are getting water…”

On the other hand, Annamalai has maintained that Karnataka must follow the rules. “The law of the land is very clear,” said Annamalai on September 14. “After 2018, the Cauvery Water Management Board was constituted and it has given its verdict ... I am sure the Supreme Court will look into the details of Tamil Nadu’s argument. Tamil Nadu doesn’t need extra water, it wants its share of water.”

Historically, the BJP has had little presence in Tamil Nadu. But Karnataka is electorally significant. It is the only southern state where the BJP has previously formed a government on its own. Moreover, the state with 28 Lok Sabha seats contributed heavily to the BJP’s success in the 2014 and 2019 general elections.

The BJP’s state units have opposing views on the Mekedatu dam project too. The dam, to be built on the Cauvery where it enters Tamil Nadu, is to provide water to Bengaluru. The BJP’s Tamil Nadu unit has opposed the project claiming it threatens the state’s interests, but the Karnataka unit is rooting for it. “Let them protest, but we will build [the dam],” Bommai, then Karnataka’s chief minister, said in 2021. “I don’t care what Annamalai says.”