New Delhi: After weeks of political uncertainty in Nagaland, the ruling Naga People’s Front (NPF) elected its president Shurhozelie Liezietsu as the new leader of the party’s legislative party, thus clearing the decks for him to take over the reins of the state from T.R. Zeliang. Liezietsu will be sworn in on Wednesday, February 22.
On the evening of February 19, then chief minister Zeliang handed over his resignation letter to governor P.B. Acharya at Raj Bhavan, who asked him to continue as the caretaker chief minister till a new consensus leader was elected.
Zeliang called for an emergency meeting of the NPF legislative party at 10 am on February 20 at the state banquet hall where all the members were “requested to attend”, “so as to select a consensus leader to ensure smooth transition of office and to prove the best governance to the people of Nagaland”.
The power struggle in the state took many turns over the last three weeks, following the demand of the Nagaland Tribal Action Committee (NTAC), comprising various tribal bodies, that Zeliang step down, particularly after their protest against the state cabinet’s decision to hold the urban local body (ULB) elections on February 1 with 33% reservation for women candidates turned violent. The violence claimed at least two lives, allegedly in police firing, in Dimapur, and subsequent led to the burning down of government offices. The NTAC blamed the Zeliang dispensation “for turning against its own people”.
While Zeliang and Acharya made a few quick trips to New Delhi to “find a solution” to the impasse with the central government and also with some leaders of the ruling BJP, with which the NPF has an alliance in the state, sources in the NPF maintained that talks were on then either to form a BJP government in Nagaland or to impose president’s rule if required to quell the ongoing protests.
Zeliang, as per local news reports, didn’t support the idea of president’s rule in the state, instead deciding to step down. As per a party source, “Zeliang is likely to be given a berth in the Narendra Modi government soon.”
After the resignation of Sarbananda Sonowal from the Modi government to become Assam chief minister in May last year, the Centre has been willing to accommodate another minister from the northeast (apart from minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju). Sources said, “Zeliang may be the one.”
Though on February 16, the political turmoil in Nagaland looked towards a possible solution with 39 NPF legislators in the 60-member assembly extending support to 81-year-old Surhozelie to be their consensus candidate for the next chief minister, the game changed yet again. As many as 49 legislators – 41 of whom are from the NPF – turned rebel and moved into a resort in Kaziranga, Assam. The rebels demanded that former chief minister and the lone MP from the state, Neiphu Rio, be their leader instead. This brought out the role of Rio, long suspected by political observers in the state, in these developments.
The ruling Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN) government in the state is a unique coalition which comprises all the legislators including four from the BJP, eight from the Congress (they thereafter joined NPF) and eight independents, besides the 40 NPF MLAs. Since the NPF has the largest number of legislators at 48, the government is led by it.
Interestingly, the coalition was born out of a similar power struggle in 2015, when 22 NPF MLAs rebelled against Zeliang’s leadership, allegedly masterminded by Rio. Zeliang remained in power after he was supported by the rest of the MLAs in the house. Since then, Rio stands suspended from the NPF, along with a party legislator.
As per sources in the party, Rio has since been trying to grab power. Sources said, “The ULB elections with 33% reservation for women was turned into a political game by Rio to take over from Zeliang, as his decision to hold the polls was not approved by the powerful tribal bodies. They felt it would dilute their right to follow the customary laws as per article 371 A of the constitution.”
Among those who checked in to the resorts in Kaziranga on February 17 in support of Rio included the lone BJP MLA, besides seven independents.
On August 10, the Zeliang cabinet decided to conduct the ULB polls as per an interim order passed by the Supreme Court. The apex court is hearing a petition by the Naga Mothers’ Association, which is seeking a directive from the apex court to the state government to implement the 33% reservation for women in the ULBs, like in other states.
The cabinet’s decision angered tribal groups, which, in 2012, pushed the state assembly (Rio was then the chief minister) to pass a resolution not to hold the ULB polls – due for over 16 years now – with reservation for women even though an amendment to that effect was made in 2006 to the Municipality Act, 2001.
The tribal bodies’ contention has been that implementing women’s reservation, even though it is a Supreme Court directive, will dilute article 371 A of the constitution, which allows Nagaland to form its own rules and protect its customary laws.
Earlier, speaking to this correspondent, Naga Hoho president Chuba Ozukum said, “We are opposed to the reservation in these elections because we strongly feel that it doesn’t go with the special rules that the Naga society follows.”