Political Turmoil in Nagaland as Former CM Zeliang Stakes Claim to Government

This ‘rebellion’ from within his party comes at a time when current chief minister Shurhozelie Liezietsu is on the verge of contesting in a by-election to the state assembly.

Shurhozelie Leizeitsu seen speaking to T.R. Zeliang right after he was sworn in as Nagaland chief minister on February 22. Credit: PTI

Shurhozelie Leizeitsu seen speaking to T.R. Zeliang right after he was sworn in as Nagaland chief minister on February 22. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: Barely five months after Shurhozelie Liezietsu became the Nagaland chief minister by replacing T.R. Zeliang, the tables turned against him on July 8. Zeliang had to step down last February to quell a violent protest by tribal organisations against holding urban local bodies (ULBs) elections with 33% reservation for women.

The man behind the entire process of turning the Shurhozelie government into a minority one is none other than Zeliang himself, on whose recommendation Shurhozelie, the president of the ruling Naga People’s Front (NPF), was sworn in as the state chief minister on February 22.

Eighty-one-year-old Shurhozelie had by then retired from active electioneering (he was elected to the assembly eight times) and had already given up his stronghold, the Northern Angami constituency, in favour of his son Khriehu Liezietsu, who contested from it in the 2013 assembly elections and won.

Though many political observers in the state then speculated that the former chief minister – and a bête noir of Zeliang – Neiphu Rio (it was widely believed then that Rio had a hand in the protests by the tribal organisations to grab power from Zeliang) would likely replace Zeliang, the decision to choose Shurhozelie as the leader of the legislature party of NPF was considered a smart move by Zeliang, making sure he did not walk too far from power. Zeliang’s decision then was also believed to have the support of the BJP, a constituent of the NPF-led Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN) government. The BJP has five MLAs in the 60-member assembly.

Rio, though a prominent member of the NPF and the sole MP from the party, was not invited to the then legislature party meeting reportedly “for a technical reason”, meaning his suspension from the party since June last year for “anti-party activities”. Rio continues to remain suspended from the party.

To stay close to the power corridors, Zeliang was made advisor (finance) in the new Shurhozelie government.

On July 8, Zeliang tendered his resignation from the post before staking claim to form a government in a letter to state governor P.B. Acharya. In the letter to Acharya, Zeliang wrote, “At a meeting of the legislature party of the NPF, held on July 4, 2017, at my residence in Dimapur 34 NPF MLAs (including me) out of 47 supported me to continue as the leader of the legislature party of the NPF and also authorized me to stake claim before the honourable governor o form a new NPF-led DAN government in Nagaland. The MLAs also urged the present chief minister, who is a non-MLA, to resign and pave way for me to take over as the chief minister.” He also said, “Seven independent MLAs have also affirmed their support in favour of me, taking the tally to 41 out of the 59 in support of me.”

Soon after the letter was handed over to Raj Bhavan, Zeliang, along with the MLAs supporting him, did what many of the same MLAs did five months ago to topple his government – check in to a resort in the Kaziranga national park in neighbouring Assam and “switch off their phones.”

What is interesting is that the MLAs were also joined by the assembly speaker.

“Speaker Imtiwapang Aier is supposed to maintain a neutral position but he chose to give more importance to his familial duties than that of the constitution. He chose to support Zeliang who is his brother-in-law and also checked into the same Kaziranga resort with the MLAs and became incommunicado,” a local reporter covering the unfolding of the political situation in the state told this correspondent from Kohima, on the condition of anonymity.

Though local media reports say that the reason behind the ‘rebellion’ of the MLAs is Shurhozelie’s recent nomination of his son Khriehu Liesietsu as an “advisor” to his government with cabinet rank and pay, even after he vacated his assembly seat for his father to get elected to the assembly, what is interesting is the timing of the move.

Shurhozelie is to file his nomination papers for the by-election to the Northern Angami assembly seat on July 29.

A senior NPF worker from Dimapur claimed, “As per a tacit understanding between Zeliang and Shurhozelie in February, he was to vacate the chief months’s post within two-three months and suggest Zeliang’s name for it in a legislature party meeting. However, he didn’t do so and instead decided to contest the by-election. Nobody in the party knew about his son Khriehu’s resignation from the assembly to help Shurhozelie get elected to the house, which is mandatory within six months’ time to remain the state chief minister. The party members got to know about it only when the resignation letter was handed over to the speaker and then alarms bells were raised by Zeliang and his supporters.”

He said many of his party members also agreed to support Zeliang “because by making his son an advisor with cabinet rank, Shurhozelie in a way tried to make the 60-member assembly a 61-member one.” He argued, “Khriehu has ceased to be an MLA and yet he has a cabinet rank. What does that signify? Cabinet ranks are kept for elected members. The state has six cabinet ministers including the chief minister. So how can it be handed over to a non-MLA suddenly?”

As per local media reports, Zeliang has the support of Rio and the MLAs close to him in this political adventure. Eleven MLAs are believed to be ardent supporters of Rio. Despite repeated attempts, The Wire to was unable to contact either Zeliang or Rio for more details.

Meanwhile, sources in the state Raj Bhavan said the governor is “looking at” the letter and “may ask for a floor test soon.”

However, latest media reports from Kohima and Dimapur said the state cabinet might recommend the dissolution of the assembly and call for fresh elections if the crisis continues. Quoting NPF and chief minister’s office sources, prominent newspaper Nagaland Page reported on July 9 that Shurhozeli “still holds the trump card”. The tenth schedule of the constitution bestows all powers on a party president and not legislators. Sources reportedly said, “The government and the party are still with Shurhozelie and not the rebels.”

In a meeting during the day on Sunday, NPF members supporting the party president Shurhozelie decided to suspend Zeliang along with nine rebel MLAs from the party for “anti-party activities”. Also, in a letter to the governor, Shurhozelie said that four cabinet ministers supporting Zeliang have been “immediately terminated” from the council of ministers.

Meanwhile, Shurhozeli, in a press note, said the DAN government would complete its full term and urged the people of the state to maintain calm.

The tenure of the present assembly ends on March 13, 2018.

Note: This story has been updated to include the suspension of Zeliang and nine others.

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