The Karnataka Congress Sunday launched a 10-day foot march amid Covid restrictions seeking the creation of the long-delayed Mekedatu reservoir. On the party’s mind, however, was a lot more than the project on the Cauvery that is meant to supply drinking water to Bengaluru and its surrounding regions in south Karnataka.
South Karnataka is home to the Vokkaliga community — one of the two major communities in the state — that makes up 15 per cent of the population. The other major group is the Lingayat community that is mostly concentrated in north Karnataka and makes up 17 per cent of the state’s six crore population.
The general pattern that has emerged since the 2004 state elections suggests that the Lingayats generally support the BJP and the Vokkaligas the Janata Dal (Secular).
This has resulted in poll stalemates in 2004, 2008 and 2018 — bringing mergers and horse-trading into play to form a government.
Political wisdom now shows that the BJP needs the support of the Vokkaligas to win a clear majority in polls; the JD(S) needs the Lingayats; and the Congress needs at least one of the big communities to support it to build on an existing base among backward classes, Dalits and minorities.
One of the primary reasons the Congress has launched the over 100-km protest march — in the midst of Covid restrictions — is to galvanize support in south Karnataka.
JD(S) tries to counter
The Congress’s Mekedatu march has made the JD(S), which has a considerable base in south Karnataka, sit up and take notice. Last week, the party announced a programme of its own on the water issue. It will collect water from 15 rivers in the state from January 26 and perform a “Ganga Puja”. JD(S) counter shows the political importance of the Congress move.
Congress leader D K Shivakumar will walk across 15 assembly constituencies in south Karnataka beginning Sunday and will finish the “walk for water” in Bengaluru city. The aim of the walk is to bring pressure on the BJP government at the centre to sidestep opposition by neighboring Tamil Nadu to implement the Mekedatu project.
The Mekedatu march is a brainchild of KPCC president D K Shivakumar, a Vokkaliga leader, is being undertaken by the Congress party despite the imposition of a Covid 19 weekend curfew in the state and restrictions on public gathering for two week imposed by the ruling BJP government.
The political importance of the Mekedatu march or the walk for water by the Congress party is most apparent from the fact that it prompted the JDS party to announce, on January 7, a program to collect water from 15 rivers in the state, from January 26, to hold a Ganga Puja for the state’s water resources.
“We are launching the Janata Jaladhare program with the dream that all the pending water projects in the state will be implemented,” JDS leader Kumaraswamy announced on January 7 even as the Congress stayed firm on its decision to launch the Mekedatu march from Sunday, January 10.
“The implementation of the Mekedatu project is a necessity. Our party is organizing the ‘padayatra’ to put pressure on the central and the state governments to implement it,” KPCC president said amid warnings from local officials against holding the protest march amid rising Covid cases in Bengaluru
“I will not cancel the march. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is holding rallies but the BJP government in Karnataka wants to stop us from conducting the ‘walk for water,’” the KPCC chief said on January 6.
The Congress and JDS have traditionally fought for the electoral pie in south Karnataka where the BJP was non-existent until recently. In the 2018 polls the Congress won 19 of the 61 assembly seats in the southern Mysuru-Karnataka region while the JDS won 29 seats and the BJP got 11 seats. In the Bengaluru Urban region where 28 seats were at stake the Congress won 15 in the 2018 polls, the BJP won 11, and the JDS won two seats.
Overall the BJP won 104 seats, the Congress 80 and JDS 37 seats in the 2018 state assembly polls. The Congress-JDS formed a coalition government initially in 2018 but the coalition was dislodged by the BJP after poaching 17 MLAs from the Congress and JDS.
Ahead of the launch of the Mekedatu protest march both the Congress and JDS have claimed credit for envisaging the reservoir project to supply drinking water to Bengaluru and surrounding areas while the ruling BJP has called the protest march a “political gimmick” by the Congress.
The Congress has said the plan for the construction of the project at a cost of Rs 5,912 crore was made during the tenure of the Siddaramaiah led Congress government between 2013 and 2018.
The JDS leader H D Kumaraswamy has stated that a detailed project report was prepared when he was the CM in a coalition with the Congress in 2018-19. Kumaraswamy said the Congress proposed the project but later went quiet on it. “If a protest march can yield the project I would be the first to join the protest,” said Kumaraswamy who in recent days has seemed to lean politically towards the BJP.
The water resources minister in the BJP government in Karnataka Govind Karjol has stated that the Congress should convince its political ally the DMK in Tamil Nadu to allow implementation of the project instead of holding a protest march since Tamil Nadu has raised legal objections to the project.
Past and present BJP chief ministers, B S Yediyurappa and Basavaraj Bommai, have stated that they have raised the Mekedatu water project issue with the central government to obtain clearances. “These issues should be resolved judicially,” Karnataka CM Bommai said in November 2021.
According to an official advising the BJP government in Karnataka the Congress move to hold the protest march to demand implementation of the Mekedatu project is a “political masterstroke”. “The move has put the JDS and the BJP in a defensive mode. It can translate into Vokkaliga support for the Congress and for the leadership of KPCC chief Shivakumar,” the official said.
Shivakumar is incidentally jockeying to be in a position to be the first Congress Vokkaliga leader since S M Krishna (in 1999) to become the chief minister of Karnataka.
Incidentally, when the Congress came to power in the state in 2013 one of the forces that catapulted the party was a 300 km protest march undertaken by Siddaramaiah and other leaders from Bengaluru to Ballari to oppose illegal mining and corruption in Ballari by members of the BJP holding power.
“The Congress Mekedatu march is also a bit of a double edged sword. If the Covid cases remain under control during the period of the march it alright for the Congress but if cases go out of control and it creates a healthcare emergency the Congress party would be blamed,” said a government official.