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July 24, 1998


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Adrift on the Cauvery...

N Sathya Moorthy in Chennai

It's a case of uh oh, here we go again, as J Jayalalitha renews her flirtation with the Congress.

Does this, however, mean she will use her latest hobbyhorse, the Cauvery waters dispute, as a pretext to pull out of the BJP-led government at the Centre?

"It's a better bet for her than the earlier demand for dismissal of the DMK government in Tamil Nadu," believes a source within her AIADMK party. "But there are a lot of imponderables, they have to be considered before a final decision is taken."

Though Jayalalitha has come down heavily on the BJP leadership, both before and after the adjourned Supreme Court hearing of July 21, a lot will depend on the Congress party's willingness to form an alternative government and, more importantly, to include the AIADMK in its calculations.

"Even the Congress does not have a solution to the Cauvery waters dispute that will satisfy politicians and the public in both TN and Karnataka," admits a senior AIADMK leader, putting his finger on the crux of the problem. "And the Congress leadership knows it better than anyone."

The AIADMK's fear, as articulated by this leader, is that the Congress may lead it down the garden path for a while, and then prefer fresh polls rather than opting to form a government with AIADMK support.

The party is not ruling out the possibility of a split in its ranks, either, but for now, hopes that "the Cauvery row will prove too sensitive for any of our MPs to desert the leadership -- it was easier to do so when Jayalalitha was demanding the dismissal of the DMK government, anyone could walk out of our ranks then and claim that theirs was a principled stand, but this is too emotional an issue for an MP to risk doing that," argues the leader.

Jayalalitha, meanwhile, is busy considering various ways of upping the ante. It will be recalled that during her chief ministership, she had, in a bid to prop up her falling popularity graph, gone on an 'indefinite fast' at the Marina beach over the issue. On that occasion, then prime minister P V Narasimha Rao refused to budge, and Jayalalitha was forced to give up her fast, with considerable loss of face involved.

This time round, a similar move was considered by the AIADMK top brass, then discarded on the grounds that the party could not risk the BJP imitating Rao's example of unconcern.

However, while the AIADMK leaders believe that Cauvery could give them the issue they need to get the voters on their side, political analysts are not quite so sanguine. "Thanks to Jayalalitha's dramatics, the party's credibility is now so low that the voter will tend to take everything she says, even if it is genuine, with a pinch of salt," says one such analyst. "Today, the trend among the common man is to see a political design hidden in every move she makes, every word she speaks -- and it is no secret that her real goal is to get out of her cases."

Chief Minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi, for his part, has been adopting a wait and watch policy, saying merely that he is waiting for the hearings in the apex court to resume. Based on the Centre's position at that time, Karunandhi says, his government will decide on its next step.

Both Karunanidhi and Jayalalitha are angry that the government has gone back on its promise to take a line favouring TN, during the apex court hearings. The promise was reportedly conveyed to both leaders by Defence Minister George Fernandes, during his trip to Madras last weekend.

Subsequent pressures, brought upon Prime Minister A B Vajpayee by Karnataka MPs following a meeting between Fernandes and Chief Minister J H Patel, is reportedly responsible for the Centre's volte face.

Realising that a pro-TN stand would irk Karnataka and vice versa, the government finally decided to take a neutral, even ambiguous, stand, at least until the Budget session of Parliament is over and done with.

Interestingly, it was Fernandes' promise that prompted Jayalalitha to issue a strongly worded anti-Centre statement on the eve of the Supreme Court hearing. Her thinking was that the government, as per Fernandes' assurance, would take a pro-TN stand in court. She could then claim this was due to her relentless crusade.

In the event, the Centre's ambiguity took the wind right out of her sails, and has now left her looking a touch impotent.

For now, the Cauvery delta area is peaceful. But if the final decision of the apex court goes against TN interests, that situation could change in a hurry.

This is something the state government has anticipated, and warned the Centre about.

More importantly, if 1993 is repeated and Tamils in Karnataka become the targets of chauvinist violence, the reaction in TN is liable to become very violent -- with the BJP and the local Kannadiga establishments being the prime targets of public ire.

Ironically, in the event of such violence breaking out, the government cannot even use it to secure the dismissal of the DMK government, thus satisfying Jayalalitha, because violence, if and when, will be anti-Centre, not aimed against the state government.

What is causing genuine concern to the state authorities is the real possibility of peripheral pan-Tamil groups using an evolving anti-Tamil situation in Karnataka to create tension nearer home.

"It could be aimed at the Centre, it could be aimed at whipping up pan-Tamil sentiments, but given the fluid law and order situation in the state, we are keeping our fingers crossed," says a senior government official. In this context, he also refers to "political interests that have their own causes".

Luckily for all concerned, sufficient rains and the resulting natural flow of Cauvery waters in Tamil Nadu have helped defuse tensions that could have arisen in the event of a weak monsoon. In fact, there has been plentiful rain the last six years barring that one occasion, and Karnataka has been only too happy to release surplus water to TN.

This year is no different, and it is for this reason that the farmers here may be willing to wait for another year for a final settlement, particularly when they know that the law is in their favour and there is nothing much anyone can do to rewrite it.

Thus, it is the political fallout of the Centre's decision, particularly the gameplan up Jayalalitha's sleeve, that will be in greater focus.

On that count at least, her accusing the BJP leadership with taking an anti-Tamil, pro-Kannadiga stand with the Karnataka assembly election in mind, may not help matters. In fact, it can only harden political positions on the other side of the Cauvery, and also whip up popular sentiments among volatile Kanadigas.

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