Sources say the chief minister has been in talks with the BJP to move with his supporters to that party if the pressure on him to resign heightens further.
Imphal (Manipur): Will the loss of Naga women’s political rights turn out to be a surprise political gain for the BJP in Nagaland?
State chief minister T.R. Zeliang is under severe pressure from powerful tribal bodies to step down, despite 42 of the 59 legislators of the Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN) reaffirming their support to his government on February 3.
The Naga Hoho, an apex body of all 18 Naga tribes, is opposed to a recent Supreme Court interim order directing the state government to implement 33% reservation for women in elections to urban local bodies (ULBs).
According to reliable sources in the Naga People’s Front (NPF) – Zeliang’s party, which is a part of the DAN government – the chief minister has been in talks with the BJP’s central leadership to move with his supporters to the saffron party, just as Pema Khandu recently did in Arunachal Pradesh, and continue in the government if the pressure on him to resign heightens further.
The Zeliang government’s term ends in early 2018.
According to sources, “Zeliang could have been able to assuage the tribal groups from opposing the ULB elections with women’s reservation had it not been backed by a section of NPF members supported by suspended party leader and former state chief minister Neiphiu Rio. They took the opportunity to renew their effort to remove Zeliang from the CM’s post, which failed to bear fruit earlier.”
Though there is no official confirmation of such a move by the chief minister, and neither the BJP nor NPF leaders are ready to speak openly about such a possibility, on February 7, Zeliang said “vested interests” were behind the calls for his resignation.
“Some vested interests are taking advantage of the public movement and turning it into a politically motivated situation,” he told local media in Kohima.
Zeliang said that as per the demand of the joint coordination committee (JCC) of tribal bodies spearheading the agitation, the ULB elections, which were slated for February 1, were postponed for some ULBs.
“We agreed to their demand in principle but subject to the approval of the state government,” he said. The state cabinet also decided to submit a memorandum to the prime minister to pass an ordinance to exempt the state from Part IX-A of the constitution as per which it had to hold the ULB elections.
The government also transferred the commissioner of police in Dimapur after two protesters were killed, allegedly in police firing, on February 2.
“And yet, there was fresh demand for my resignation, which means there was vested interest,” the chief minister said, adding, “I am ready to step down if the MLAs go against me.”
In 2015, 22 of the 38 MLAs expressed no confidence in Zeliang’s leadership to the governor, a move allegedly engineered by Neiphu Rio.
Zeliang thereafter created the DAN coalition and formed the government with support from 16 NPF MLAs and eight Congress legislators and seven independents. Since then, Rio has been suspended from the NPF for “anti-party activities”. The dissident NPF MLAs later rejoined the government.
Though at the time there was pressure on the central leadership of the BJP from Rio and his supporters in NPF – an ally of the BJP in Nagaland – to not back Zeliang, the central leadership decided to support him anyway.
The Zeliang government thus became a unique dispensation that enjoyed the support of both the Congress and the BJP. It is also a government that has only one member in the opposition – Thomas Ngullie, an independent MLA.
On February 7, after a meeting of all the tribal apex bodies of the state along with the JCC, organised by the Naga Tribes Action Committee (NTAC) in Kohima, the NTAC convener K.T. Vilie reiterated the demand for Zeliang’s resignation.
“The chief minister should step down on moral grounds within a period of three days with effect from February 8,” he said, asking “everyone not to politicise the historic movement under any circumstance.”
He added that “There was no need to write to the prime minister about bringing an ordinance to stop the ULB elections as under Article 371(A) of the constitution, the state assembly can make its own laws.”
As part of an eight-point resolution taken at the meeting, Vilie also asked all tribal bodies “not to attend the meeting called by the chief minister on February 8 and any other meetings convened by him in the future.” He also warned, “in the event of any leader attending the meeting, such a person will be treated as anti-Naga.”
NPF sources told The Wire, “If Zeliang joins the BJP, the NPF may split into two as Rio has considerable support among the MLAs even after his suspension.”
According to sources in the BJP in Imphal, “The BJP-NPF alliance in Nagaland has not been respected by the NPF in Manipur. The Naga dominated districts in Manipur will vote for NPF, so anyway, the alliance with NPF is not bringing any gain to the party.”
The sources added, “Rio’s attempts at strengthening NPF in Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh have not been taken lightly by the BJP, a reason why he also lost out on a possible cabinet berth in the Narendra Modi government last year.”
Attempts by The Wire to contact Rio on the issue failed to elicit any response.
However, responding to a reporter’s query about such a move by Zeliang at the NPF ticket distribution ceremony in Kohima on February 7, party president S. Leizeitsu rubbished the rumour saying it had been floated only to create confusion among party members.
Zeliang too denied such a plan. “NPF and BJP have an alliance since 2003, there is no question of merger with the BJP,” he said at a press meet in Kohima in response to a query.
Currently, the BJP has four legislators in the 60-member Nagaland assembly, three of whom won the 2013 assembly elections on Nationalist Congress Party tickets before defecting. In October, the Zeliang government removed BJP MLA M. Kikon from the post of parliamentary secretary reportedly for “anti-government activities”, leading to some tension between Zeliang and the BJP.