The body language of an otherwise eloquent Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah preferring to read out a written statement and avoiding media questions after a late night cabinet press briefing on Wednesday, was obvious: under pressure.
Siddaramaiah is trying to do the impossible: Not release Cauvery waters, complying with overwhelming public opinion, and yet avoid defying the Supreme Court.
Accordingly, he has deferred the implementation of the order of the Supreme Court on 20 September to release 6,000 cusecs of water to Tamil Nadu for 10 days.
“He would like to imply that he is under conflicting pressure from the legislature and the judiciary and has not acted on his own to defy any order. He has not said he will not release water, but only defer it, which leaves open the possibility of releasing more later,” said Narendra Pani, political analyst and professor at the School of Social Sciences of the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bengaluru.
Pani and other legal experts say the fact that the state has followed two earlier orders, despite the acute water shortage could help strengthen the argument for the cabinet decision.
Siddaramaiah also said he would request the governor to convene a session of both Houses of the Karnataka assembly on 23 September—a move to pass a resolution backing the state’s claim that it can’t comply with the apex court’s order.
Political parties in Karnataka have urged the state government to defy the orders of the Supreme Court—a precedent which has been met with severe action against the sitting government in 1991 and 2002.
Senior Congress leader and former chief minister of Karnataka, S.M.Krishna, claims the state is inching towards a constitutional crisis, while Janata Dal (Secular) spokesperson Y.S.V. Datta had said the state must “create a Constitutional crisis” to ensure the legislature is not overruled by the judiciary.
“I won’t say that this is a case of legislature versus judiciary,” said M.F. Saldhana, a retired Karnataka high court judge.
Chief minister Siddaramaiah may be able to duck the charge of contempt, given that there is more or less political consensus in the state on not releasing waters of the Cauvery.
“The chief minister, in my opinion, cannot be held for contempt,” says Saldhana, before adding that the resolution passed in the special session must be “softly and carefully worded”, which could lead to a decision that says that “legislature ultimately represents the voice of the people.”