A dose of practicality

Silence and patience are sometimes great virtues. No dialogue is possible in an emotion-charged atmosphere and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi has done very well to counsel patience on the Hogenakkal drinking water project until the Karnataka Assembly election is concluded. This statesmanly intervention cooled tempers overnight in both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka: after days of burning buses, attacking shops, and closing down cinemas, chauvinist elements on both sides were suddenly left without a cause to fight for. Political leaders in Karnataka, including former Congress Chief Minister S.M. Krishna, who seemed belligerent on the issue after the BJP raised the ante, were quick to see the good sense behind the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister’s initiative to counteract the violence with a peace march. The Hogenakkal project took years to move from the discussion board to the field and waiting out another couple of months will cost nothing. In any case, meaningful talks on the project can only be held with an elected government in Karnataka, and this will be possible only after the new Assembly is constituted by the end of May. By injecting a dose of practicality, Mr. Karunanidhi skilfully managed a situation that, in less experienced hands, could have spun out of control. Sadly, opposition leaders in Tamil Nadu, especially former Chief Minister and AIADMK leader Jayalalithaa, instead of making common, constructive cause with the State government on this issue, are cynically trying to make political capital out of it.

The behaviour of political parties in Karnataka is easier to understand, although hard to justify. With a key Assembly election campaign under way and nobody clear about the shape of the next government, no party wants to risk being seen as even remotely sympathetic to Tamil Nadu on the issue of a drinking water and sanitation project that draws from Cauvery water resources. The Cauvery river water dispute is long-standing and complicated, and a reasoned stance is more difficult to sell to the voters than a simplistic, emotion-charged approach. Apprehensions in Karnataka about the Hogenakkal project can be more easily allayed when political “power generation,” as Mr. Karunanidhi put it, is not the issue it is now. Tamil Nadu has made it clear that the project has nothing to do with hydroelectric power generation or irrigation, and there is thus no question of building dams on the Karnataka side of the border. The project will only use 1.4 tmcft of water from Tamil Nadu’s allotted share of the Cauvery resources through a reservoir at Madam, 11 km away from Hogenakkal. A responsible government with a popular mandate in Karnataka can be expected to have the sobriety needed to put a constructive seal on an already settled issue — free from the opportunistic and parochial pulls of election season.

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