Will Mahanadi Sink BJP’s ‘Mission-120’?

There is now very little doubt that the Mahandi issue is fast turning out to be an albatross around the BJP’s neck. Party leaders and spokespersons in Odisha look distinctly fidgety and give the impression of being terribly uncomfortable whenever they are asked about the Centre’s stand on the contentious issue. Instead of answering questions on the issue, they come out with inane, incoherent and inconsistent responses that suggest they simply don’t have any answers. Their unease has become particularly palpable since the BJP-led central government backed out of its own commitment to the Supreme Court to form a tribunal – as demanded by the Odisha government under the River Disputes Act, 1956 – by November 19, 2017 to resolve the issue.

The party first sought to explain away the December 6 affidavit by claiming that there was not a ‘single line’ in the 260-odd page document that said the Center would not form the tribunal as is being made out by the media. Curiously, however, while trying to repudiate media reports and BJD allegations on the formation of tribunal, no one is willing to stick his neck out and say that the government would indeed form the tribunal. Next, it cited the ‘permanent tribunal’ reportedly in the offing to justify its stand on why it is not ‘necessary’ to form a tribunal at this stage. But in the absence of a timeline for the setting up of the permanent tribunal, what prevents the Centre from forming the tribunal on Mahanadi? In any case, all river dispute cases being presently dealt with by various tribunals, including the one on the vexed Kaveri dispute, will automatically get transferred to the new, permanent tribunal, won’t they? Going by the same logic, why doesn’t it wind up all the existing tribunals?

The Central government’s contrived argument of a ‘negotiated settlement’ to justify postponing the formation of the tribunal is laughable to say the least. Wasn’t it the same government that told Parliament – through its Minister of State for Water Resources Sanjiv Balyan – on August 1 this year that the government was in the process of forming a tribunal since all efforts to resolve the dispute through talks had failed?      

In my view, the Centre would have done well to form the tribunal as per its commitment to the apex court and take the wind out of the sails of the BJD campaign to paint it as impervious to Odisha’s interests. Given how long tribunals take to resolve river disputes – the tribunal on Kaveri, for example, has been at it for 27 years now without anything to show by way of a resolution – the BJP government at the Centre would have lost nothing in political terms. Instead, it has chosen to continue prevaricating on the issue and in the process opened itself to the charge of siding with the Chhattisgarh government where the BJP would face an election next year.

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It has been just a little over a year. But it is hard to remember now that it was, in fact, the BJD that was in the dock and had a lot to answer for on the issue. When the issue burst into the limelight sometime last year, the ruling party had fist sought to wriggle out of the dock by claiming that the Chhattisgarh government had not kept Odisha in the loop about the construction of barrages in the upper reaches of Mahanadi. When that blatant lie was busted – of course, with generous help from the Chhattisgarh government – the BJD hit the streets with its tried and tested weapon for all seasons: Central apathy. With its conduct, both in the Centre as well as in the state, the BJP has walked straight into the trap laid by the BJD. In turning the spotlight firmly on the discomfiture of the BJP on the Mahanadi dispute, the BJD has successfully projected itself as the champion of the state’s interests and painted the saffron party as ‘anti-Odisha.’ It has cleverly managed to turn the attention away from its own failings on the issue.   

It is now clear that the BJP wants to keep the issue hanging at least till after the elections in the neighbouring state. The party perhaps believes that it would enhance the chances of the Raman Singh government winning a fourth consecutive term in office. But what it fails to realise is that in the process, it is ruining whatever little chances it had of putting up a good show – if not win – in the Assembly elections due to March, April, 2019. “Mission-120”, suspect at the best of times, now distinctly appears to be an exercise in daydreaming.