Much like in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where laws and norms were fashioned on the spot by those who believed they wielded state power, in Nagaland – after a fortnight of bitter and legally messy infighting within the ruling Naga People’s Front (NPF) – dissident leader T.R. Zeliang managed to conclusively topple the Shurhozelie Liezietsu-led government to replace him as chief minister.
Zeliang was hurriedly sworn in as chief minister by governor P.B. Acharya on July 19 after Liezietsu failed to turn up for the floor test he was asked to take by the governor. Zeliang was also asked to prove his majority on July 21. Amidst all the chaos and controversy, Zeliang has now proven he has majority support, winning 47 votes in the 60 member house with an effective strength of 59 currently.
What distinguished the change of guards this time was that the challenge to the NPF government headed by Liezietsu came from within the party, and yet the Nagaland state assembly was called upon to settle this internal strife, courtesy the governor. Under normal circumstances, such infighting should have been left to the party’s own internal conflict resolution mechanisms, such as the party high command’s or the general body’s verdict to settle.
Zeliang is a former NPF chief minister who had to step down in February following widespread violent public protests over his decision to hold elections to urban local bodies with the national norm of 33% reservation for women. The NPF had then called veteran party man Liezietsu, 81, out of retirement to be its consensus candidate for the chief minister’s post to douse the raging fire.
Since Liezietsu is not a member of the House, his MLA son Khreihu vacated his seat to allow the election of his father within the stipulated six months. The by-election to this seat is due on July 29. However, barely a month before the by-election came Zeliang’s blitzkrieg. He led his rebel team away from Nagaland and camped at a resort in Kaziranga in Assam and claimed they had the support of 36 of the NPF’s 47 MLAs, besides those of the four BJP and seven independents MLAs, bringing up their strength to 47.
Liezietsu refused to quit and instead resorted to firing several ministers believed to be key players in the drama in the hope that this would quell the rebellion. Nothing worked, but he still refused to give way. It was then that the governor stepped in to ask Liezietsu to prove his majority on the floor of the assembly. The latter again refused and challenged the governor’s order in the Kohima bench of the Gauhati high court, saying this was an internal matter of the NPF.
The court disagreed and dismissed Liezietsu’s petition, ruling rather enigmatically that “the matter is left to the wisdom of the governor to take a decision on the same after proper application of mind”. Lietzietsu, known for his quick wit, in an interview to a Nagaland-based English daily after his dismissal, charged the governor of having failed to properly apply his mind.
Notwithstanding the court ruling, the question as to whether it is proper for a governor to invoke the power of the assembly to settle a dispute within a political party even when there was no question of a constitutional crisis as the rebels had not applied for a split of the ruling party, is refusing to go away.
On July 19, when Leizeitsu failed to turn up for the floor test, the assembly speaker adjourned the house and had a consultation with the governor. The latter promptly dismissed the chief minister and appointed Zeliang as the new head of government. In response, the NFP expelled Zeliang from the party ahead of his scheduled floor test on July 21, and issued a whip directing all NPF legislators to vote against any confidence motion Zeliang may move on the day. However, Zeliang got 47 votes in the floor test, confirming all 36 NPF rebels voted against the party whip, yet there has been no official declaration of a split in the NPF.
In his bitterness after his dismissal, Leitzeitsu tauntingly referred to his nemesis Zeliang as the “Heraka boy”, who was a favourite of the governor, a man he alleges still remains a BJP functionary determined to convert the Kohima Raj Bhavan into a BJP office. He also charged that the two were working together to usher in the BJP into Nagaland.
Zeliang belongs to the Zeliangrong group of Naga tribes, spread across Nagaland, Manipur and Assam. They are also among the last of the Naga tribes to embrace Christianity. A sizeable section among them are still followers of the pre-Christian indigenous religion often referred to as Heraka, made famous by Rani Gaidinliu, a rebel religious cult figure at the time of Indian independence struggle.
Gaidinliu not only resisted the British administration, but also the Naga sovereignty movement of A.Z. Phizo and his Naga National Council. After independence, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru discovered her in a British jail, and taking a liking to the story of her resistance, conferred her the Rani title, and later the Padma Bhusan.
In Manipur, Gaidinliu is revered. In Nagaland, a move to construct a memorial in her name by Zeliang in his earlier term as chief minister was vehemently opposed. The BJP is believed to be working to enlist Heraka followers in its ranks.
Acharya was a BJP secretary in charge of the Northeast for long before he became governor after the BJP came to power in 2014.
Pradip Phanjoubam is editor of Imphal Free Press.