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Neiphiu Rio: The man at helm of Nagaland politics for last two decades

ByAlice Yhoshü
Feb 25, 2023 04:30 PM IST

Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio has kept track of the mood of the people and has kept himself in tune with the changing times

Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio, who has managed to be at the centre of politics in the northeastern state for the last two decades by making himself relevant to the times, is looking forward to a fifth innings as the CM in the February 27 assembly polls.

Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio. (ANI)

With almost 50 years of experience in politics, Rio, 72, is the chief ministerial candidate of the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance and will contest from his home constituency Northern Angami-II in Kohima district, which he has dominated in the last seven assembly elections. He had lost only once from the constituency in 1987 when he made his debut in electoral politics.

“Rio is an astute politician and he has kept in tune with the changing times. He has kept track of the mood of the people and has successfully changed with the mood of the people,” said Sebastian Zumvü, the head of a village in Chumoukedima district.

Rio entered politics in 1974 at 24 by leading the youth wing of the erstwhile regional United Democratic Front. He tasted his first electoral victory in 1989 after joining the Congress under then chief minister SC Jamir and stayed on for ten years. At the turn of the millennium, Rio broke away from the Congress on reasons surrounding the long-standing Naga political issue and joined the regional party.

He was instrumental in reviving the regional party under a fresh name, the Nagaland People’s Front (NPF), and initiated the formation of the Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN) government following the 2003 assembly elections along with three national parties including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This spelt the downfall of the Congress in the state.

During the next three terms, Rio consolidated his position by roping in members of other parties and went on to build the NPF’s base in different Naga inhabited areas (Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh) after renaming the regional party from “Nagaland People’s Front” to “Naga People’s Front”.

In 2014, he abdicated his CM chair and got elected as a member of Parliament (MP) in the Lok Sabha following which the regional party began to face multiple crises. Rio returned to state politics in 2018 after helping form another regional party- Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP), splitting the NPF.

He then managed to snatch the BJP from the NPF’s partnership and went into polls with a pre-poll seat-sharing arrangement with the national party by a formula where his party contested in 40 out of 60 constituencies and the BJP in 20.

There were doubts on the new alliance and though it could win only 30 seats (NDPP 18 and BJP 12), Rio continued to prove his mettle by forming the People’s Democratic Alliance government by gaining the support of one independent and one JD (U) MLA.

The NPF won 26 seats but failed to muster enough support to form the government.

Over the last five years, Rio allowed the NPF to join hands with the ruling NDPP and BJP to form an opposition-less government, to give momentum for an early settlement of the vexed Naga political issue.

He also increased the NDPP’s numbers in the assembly and by 2022, the party had 41 MLAs. Despite being part of the government, 21 NPF MLAs led by former chief minister TR Zeliang jumped ship to merge with the NDPP, leaving the NPF wrecked.

Last year, Rio again managed to get the BJP leadership to agree to a 40:20 pre-poll seat-sharing formula. There were protests from state BJP workers who felt the formula was imbalanced but the party high command in Delhi went ahead with the arrangement.

Sebastian Zumvüa observed that Rio will surely cobble up the numbers required to form government even this time.

“People seem to trust the quality of his leadership. As a regional leader, he won over not just the hearts of Naga leaders but the hearts of the central BJP leaders who trust him enough to enter coalition as junior partner,” said S Among, a teacher by profession.

Among said it is strange how different parties like to win his support and like to stay in his good books.

“He has the capability of ensuring stability. He has personal rapport with other leaders, not only central but those from neighbouring states,” said Aman, a Dimapur-based businessman.

Rio, who is headed for a straight race against Congress’s freshman Seyievilie Sachu in the ensuing polls, said he is confident that the NDPP-BJP partnership will return to form the government by themselves.

“Going by the current trend, this election could deliver a fractured mandate. In such a scenario, the smaller parties will definitely play a big role in government formation,” said Imkong Walling, a senior journalist from Dimapur.

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