The Bharatiya Janata Party has been wedged into a tight corner by Thursday’s Supreme Court verdict striking down as “unconstitutional” a law enacted by Punjab in 2004 to renege on the state’s obligation to build the Sutlej Yamuna Link canal. This channel would enable Punjab to share the waters of the Sutlej, Ravi and Beas rivers with other states in the region, especially neighbouring Haryana.

But Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal has reiterated that his state would not release “even a drop of water” to anyone else in view of the acute shortage of water for irrigation at home. The issue is an emotive one for farmers in poll-bound Punjab, which is ruled by Badal’s Shiromani Akali Dal in a coalition with the Bharatiya Janata Party.

However, even as the BJP’s Punjab unit is opposed to sharing river water to other states, the party’s unit in Haryana – where it is also in power – is fighting to get its due from Punjab. “Punjab government is not bigger than the Supreme Court, which has given its advice,” said Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar. “I hope that the decision is amicably implemented.”

Reacting to Badal’s assertion that that not a single drop of water would be allowed to be taken outside the state, Khattar said,”It is a multi-state agreement. Ours is a federal democracy and it should be respected.”

Long history

The agreement he was referring to was the deal on water-sharing signed in 1981 by Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan. But the acrimony goes back even longer, to the time when Haryana was carved out of Punjab in 1966. It was subsequently decided to give the new state access to the waters of the Sutlej and Beas rivers through the Satlej-Yamuna Link canal. But Punjab has now taken the position that Haryana is not a riparian state and the share of water allotted to it is both illegal and discriminatory.

The latest flare-up was sparked on Thursday, when the Supreme Court disposed of a Presidential reference made in 2005 by APJ Abdul Kalam on the constitutional validity of the law passed the previous year by the Punjab government, then led by Captain Amarinder Singh of the Congress, to unilaterally terminate the Sutlej Yamuna Link water-sharing agreement.

The court decision set off a political storm in Punjab. State Congress chief Amarinder Singh took no time in tendering his resignation from Lok Sabha on Thursday and all the Congress MLAs have been directed to submit resignations from state Assembly with just about three months left for the elections.

Not to be outdone, Chief Minister Badal is also considering the idea of sending his government a resignation over the emotive issue.

Both Amarinder Singh and Chief Minister Badal are vying to take credit for cancelling the treaty and looking to reap political capital from this during the upcoming Assembly elections. They are also both making the case that their rivals have actually attempted to move ahead with the project.

Amarinder Singh keeps pointing to the fact that it was Badal who initiated the process of acquiring land to build the canal during a previous stint in office in 1978. “Badal wrote to Haryana government letters demanding payment for construction of the canal,” he has said. “This was in follow up to an agreement between him and Devi Lal [then the chief minister of Haryana] that Haryana would pay Rs 5 crore to Punjab” to build the canal.

Badal has been maintaining that Indira Gandhi, when she was prime minister, had forced Congress Chief Minister Darbara Singh to sign the agreement in 1981. He had been pushing in the point by noting that Amarinder Singh had welcomed Indira Gandhi to lay the foundation of canal in 1982. Clippings of advertisements showing picture of Amarinder Singh, then an MP, welcoming Indira Gandhi are being circulated.

Final burial

In 2004, when Amarinder Singh was chief minister, Punjab scrapped the law requiring it to build the canal. The state governor referred the issue to the president, who subsequently asked the Supreme Court for its comments.

Even as the issue lay before the Supreme Court for over 10 years, Punjab sought to give the project a final burial by de-notifying the land acquired for the construction of the canal and return it to its original owners. In March, the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party got the support of the Congress to pass a bill to this effect. There was much jubilation in the state and even the government encouraged villagers to use earth moving machines to level the semi-constructed portions of the canal. The High Court subsequently intervened and imposed a ban on levelling the existing portions of the canal.

The Shiromani Akali Dal has now decided to ask the president not to accept the Supreme Court’s reference. A special session of the state Assembly has been convened on November 16 to adopt a resolution appealing to the president not to accept the advice of the Supreme Court.

None of the political parties in the fray in Punjab can afford to give any concessions on the waters issue. With the Assembly elections round the corner, there is no way that any party can afford to ignore the issue.

Even Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, which has decided to plunge into the Punjab elections, finds itself in a bind. It can’t afford to oppose the release of waters in Punjab while Delhi itself had been taking water from Haryana – something that the Congress as well as the Akali Dal is highlighting. These parties also refer to the affidavit given by Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi that it supported the canal. AAP, keen to make in-roads in Punjab, has claimed that the affidavit was given by a junior official without consulting the government.