Both the Narendra Modi government and the BJP leadership at the national level have realized that they have to be careful in jumping into interstate disputes. The Cauvery crisis which gripped Karnataka and Tamil Nadu during September was a stark reminder that national parties have to walk on very narrow bridges as they have long-term stakes in more than one state.
Initially, the BJP went with the virulent leaders of the party in Karnataka who saw the defiance of Supreme Court orders on the release of Cauvery water by the Siddaramaiah government as an opportunity to embarrass and even topple the Congress controlled state government. Leaders like B S Yeddyurappa and Jagadish Shettar, both former chief ministers, raised the pitch saying Siddaramaiah would be a traitor even if he releases one drop of water during a scarcity period.
There were fiery speeches in the legislature. But the rug was pulled from under the feet of BJP as former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda and his Janata dal (secular) occupied the middle space. Gowda traveled to Delhi to meet prime minister Narendra Modi.
Initially, the central government too thought it would earn the gratitude of Jayalalithaa whose support was crucial in Parliament, especially Rajya Sabha. Hence water resources minister Uma Bharti, who handles interstate river disputes did not bother to contact the two state governments. She was absorbed in her project of cleaning river Ganga.
As Karnataka refused to release water, an angry Supreme Court ordered that the Cauvery management board, mandated by the Cauvery water tribunal in 2007, to be immediately constituted. Only Tamil Nadu has insisted in the Board, while Karnataka and Kerala have both insisted the Board should not be formed until the Supreme Court disposes off their objections to the nine-year-old award of the tribunal.
The water resources ministry without political consultation advised the Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi to assure the apex court that the board will be constituted and it will implement the award. The ministry asked the four Cauvery states including Puducherry to nominate a representative each.
The Congress in Karnataka got a big stick to beat BJP saying the saffron party was bending before Tamil Nadu. Then the three union ministers from Karnataka -Ananth Kumar, D V Sadananda Gowda, and Ramesh Jigajinagi rushed to Modi seeking a correction.
Modi called Bharti, finance minister Arun Jaitley, and Rohatgi. Jaitley said that the government must make a U-turn before the Supreme Court both constitutionally and politically. Rohatgi went and took backs his promise to set up the Board. He argued that the Supreme Court did not even have powers to give such an order.
An exasperated Modi told BJP president Amit Shah that the party should advise central ministers on such sensitive matters. Shah, in turn, conveyed his displeasure to Muralidhar Rao, general secretary in charge of Karnataka and the belligerent state leaders for failing to prevent an embarrassment to the prime minister and the government.
Now Modi has told Rohatgi to be careful while arguing on the main petitions challenging the Cauvery water tribunal order, as final hearings will begin this month.