Nagaland’s Game of Thrones: Three leaders, a national party, and all eyes on post-poll equations

Given that the regional party which emerges strong will want to be on the right side of the central government, the BJP’s presence in the next government is the only certainty about the Nagaland polls.

india Updated: Jan 19, 2018 10:30 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times, Kohima
Nagaland,Game of Thrones,Kohima
PM Narendra Modi (left) shakes hands with former Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio. With current CM TR Zeliang, the three are the most important players in the assembly polls in the state. (HT File Photo)

In 2014, even as the chief minister of Gujarat was preparing to be the Prime Minister of India, in the opposite corner of the country, the chief minister of Nagaland felt he wanted to be a Union minister. And for that, despite all pleas by his party to stick to the state and drop ambitions for the Centre, Neiphiu Rio decided to contest the Lok Sabha polls.

Rio won without much fuss and left the seat of power in Kohima, where he had been CM since 2003.

But the man from Gujarat, Narendra Modi, did not make the man Rio a cabinet minister. Since then, while remaining an MP, Rio’s eyes have been firmly set back on state politics. This moment in 2014 sparked a chain of events in Nagaland that will shape the state elections next month.

Rio constituted one element in a complex triangular political establishment that is the Naga People’s Front (NPF), the ruling party of the state. Its two other leaders are the party president, Shurhozelie Liezietsu, and chief minister TR Zeliang.

All conversations around Nagaland’s electoral politics has at its heart this dominant party, the ambitions of these three men, and the shifting dynamics between them.

Kohima’s favourite guessing game has been which of the two stood together against the third at what point. It has divided, enthralled and agitated NPF; it has opposition parties both on tenterhooks and sniffing opportunities; it has created both political instability and a major constitutional dispute in the past three years; it has spawned newer parties; it has kept the BJP — a rising force in the state — alert.

And understanding even the contours of elections in the state was difficult till the power battle between the three took a decisive turn late on Wednesday, January 17 evening.

This is when Rio quit NPF, and moved to a newly-created party — the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) — and opened up the state’s political landscape. But irrespective of what the pre-poll dynamics look like, all actors in Nagaland acknowledge that alignments after the results may look entirely different.

The triangular dance

Up a slope, next to Hotel Japfu in Kohima, is the office of the NPF. On the first floor, S Akho Leyri, a general secretary of the party, is sitting with a few colleagues.

He explains how the feud in the party evolved.

After Rio left for Delhi, a majority of NPF MLAs supported Zeliang as chief minister. In January 2015, though, 23 MLAs — under the influence of Rio, Leyri suggests — sought to change the chief minister. They did not succeed. But there was internal rift within the party. Eventually, under the instruction of the Election Commission, a special convention of the NPF was called. It was decided that Shurhozelie would remain party president and Zeliang the chief minister. Round 1: the president and chief minister were united at this moment.

“The next round of instability was in 2017, when we had to hold urban local body elections in February. The chief minister supported 33% reservation for women. But there was a backlash. Houses were burnt. Two young people were shot dead (by police). And the Zeliang had to resign,” says Leyri.

This paved the way for Shurhozelie to take over as chief minster. Zeliang agreed, viewing it as a temporary option. Since Shurhozelie was not an MLA, he would have to leave office in six months, and Zeliang thought he could come back. Round 2: the party president became chief minister, with the conditional support of the former chief minister.

The Northeast challenge
How national and regional parties will fight for the three states
3 MAIN ISSUES
Corruption, lack of development: An education scam, illegal constructions troubled the Congress alliance
Ban on coal mining: Cost state Rs 60 mn
Family focus: CM Mukul Sangma accused of giving schemes to seats with his family
MAIN POLITICAL PLAYERS
Mukul Sangma, 52: A doctor, he is first after Salseng Marak to complete term as CM
Conrad Sangma, 39: Been building up NPP left behind by father PA Sangma
PN Syiem, 42: Chief executive member of Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council
3 MAIN ISSUES
Peace talks: Desperation for a final solution to the peace process with Naga extremist groups
Infighting: With no opposition, ruling NPF has been divided into groups, affecting governance
Rebel taxes: Individuals, NGOs now speaking up
MAIN POLITICAL PLAYERS
Neiphiu Rio, 67: He was CM for 11 years before becoming Nagaland’s lone Lok Sabha member in 2014
TR Zeliang, 65: Took over from Rio to form a new power centre. Had to cede to Shurhozelie Liezietsu
K Therie, 65: Power minister in pre-2003 Cong govt and together with Rio made NPF a powerful force
3 MAIN ISSUES
Employees’ pay: State government employees want 7th Pay Commission awards
Unemployment: Govt has found it hard to create employment and 10,000 teachers are set to lose jobs
Tribal state: Demand for Tipraland state revived
MAIN POLITICAL PLAYERS
Manik Sarkar, 68: At the helm since 1998, he is battling corruption charges despite a clean image
Biplab Kumar Deb, 46: Was given charge of the BJP in the state four years ago
NC Debbarma, 81: A former director AIR, changed the narrative by reviving demand for Tipraland

Equations shifted rapidly when Shurhozelie began consolidating his position and wanted to continue as CM. Zeliang wanted the chief ministership back and he was supported by Rio. In July, the Governor dismissed Shurhozelie and re-appointed Zeliang — on the grounds that the former had lost the confidence of the house.

Shurhozelie, as party president, dismissed the legislators of the Zeliang camp; and Zeliang’s camp acted against Shurhozelie’s MLAs and claimed to be the rightful torch bearer of the NPF. They went to court against each other, despite still belonging to the same party. Zeliang, however, remained chief minister, with the support of a majority of NPF MLAs, BJP and independents. Round 3: Zeliang had the support of Rio, who was made interim president of this faction of NPF, against Shurhozelie.

But through December-January, party circles have been abuzz that Zeliang and Shurhozelie gradually moved closer to each other in order to keep out Rio, who was seeing the elections as a comeback opportunity.

“We have gone through a difficult period, but I can assure you that that there is now reconciliation in the party. The CM and the party president are together again,” Leyri says.

Two party leaders — one close to the CM and one to Shurhozelie — said that the reconciliation was based on five assumptions: Zeliang will be the party’s chief minister face; Shurhozelie will remain the party president till 2020; both sides will withdraw cases against each other; suspended members from the Zeliang faction will be brought back in the party fold; and Rio will not be given a ticket for the assembly polls.

A Kikon, the NPF spokesperson, says, “We have a party resolution that those elected to Parliament -- either Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha -- must complete their terms before they can come back to the state. And so there is no question he (Rio) can come back. He is our national leader and should remain in Delhi.” And so, if the current moment is Round 4, Zeliang and Shurhozelie are back together again.

The 2018 battle

With Shurhozelie and Zeliang working together, Rio was left out. It is an open secret in Nagaland that Rio had, while being in NPF, helped create a new party, the NDPP. The NDPP is home to a number of high-profile former bureaucrats. Rio, on paper, had disassociated himself from it. Then he formally quit NPF to join the NDPP.

The state thus now has three key actors. The NPF of Shurhozelie and Zeliang; the BJP – which has steadily expanded its presence across all districts, is formally an ally of NPF but is contemplating contesting independently to capitalise on anti- incumbency against the NPF; and the Rio-led NDPP. The Congress, which used to dominate the state till 2003, saw all its MLAs in the last assembly merge into NPF, and is now at its weakest.

But there remains a strong buzz that Shurhozelie and Zeliang’s alliance may not last. And Zeliang has kept his options open by engaging with the National People’s Party of the late PA Sangma, now led by his son Conrad.

NPP is an important player in Meghalaya, is in government with the BJP in Manipur and is trying to make inroads in Nagaland. NPP leaders confirm that Zeliang and the party have been in contact. If he switches, the election could turn four-cornered, with the additional presence of independents in several seats.

All of this means that the outcome could be fragmented and real political play for government formation will happen once the results are known.

A BJP strategist says, “All options in Nagaland remain open. It will depend on who has what strength post polls. We are confident we will grow. And we can ally with whichever regional party or combination of regional parties possesses the numbers.”

Given that the regional party which emerges strong will want to be on the right side of the central government, the BJP’s presence in the next government is the only certainty about the Nagaland polls.

First Published: Jan 19, 2018 09:41 IST