The outcome appears to be in BJP’s favour as NPF leader Neiphu Rio quit the party and is poised to join the newly-formed NDPP and become the joint CM candidate.
New Delhi: One of the oldest alliance partners of the BJP, the Naga People’s Front (NPF), is set to snap ties with it and fight the Nagaland assembly elections alone. The polls are likely to take place in February or March.
However, with political developments turning at a rapid pace in the state, spiralled by the NPF’s decision – termed “surprising” even by many of its own MLAs – the outcome by the end of January 17 appears to be in the favour of the BJP.
According to sources in the state BJP, the party is likely to forge an alliance with a new regional party, the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP). This was cemented when, late January 17, it came to be known that NPF leader and three-time chief minister Neiphu Rio quit the party, making it possible for him to join the NDPP and become the joint chief ministerial candidate.
BJP state sources had in fact, before Rio’s resignation was confirmed, said that both BJP national president Amit Shah, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Rajnath Singh are open to working with Rio. “Though NPP is a partner of the NDA at the Centre, BJP is weighing the option of forging an alliance with NDPP with Rio as the chief ministerial candidate.”
In fact, Rio had reportedly reached out recently to the BJP central leadership. Rio’s decision likely also stems from the NPF taking an open stand against his joining state politics again. Though the recently formed NDPP is headed by former Congress veteran Chingwang Konyak, Rio, in a press note on January 2, had “given moral support” to it.
More so, on January 17, Konyak, joined by the party’s working president Alemteshi Jamir and other members, called on Rio at his Dimapur house and “appealed to him” to join the party.
The BJP and the NPF (earlier called the Nagaland People’s Council) have been alliance partners since 1977 when the Janata Party was formed as a political alternative to the Congress. When NPF first formed a government in the state in 2003, the BJP became its junior partner. Since then, the coalition has managed to keep a grip on power in the state.
However, with the BJP getting more and more aggressive about forming governments of its own in the Northeastern states, suspicion has been brewing in the NPF leadership. It took an ugly turn in July 2017 when NPF president and then state chief minister, Shurhozelie Leizeitsu, accused the BJP of “trying to repeat Arunachal style again in Nagaland”.
What Leiseitsu hinted at was a possible hand of the BJP in the political coup that the NPF leader and his predecessor, T.R. Zeliang, pulled off on his government that same month – akin to the one engineered against Congress chief minister Nabam Tuki in 2016.
As many as 34 of the 47 NPF MLAs, led by Zeliang and Lok Sabha member Neiphu Rio, revolted against Leizeitsu and parked themselves at a resort in the Kaziranga National Park in Assam, demanding that Leizeitsu vacate the post of the chief minister for Zeliang.
In February 2017, Leizeitsu had taken over the reins of the state after violence erupted in parts of Nagaland. It was triggered by Zeliang’s decision as the chief minister to hold the urban local body elections with 33% reservation for women.
Lezeitsu, not being an elected member of the state assembly, had to win the polls to continue as the chief minister within three months’ time. Local media reports said he, however, had “an understanding” with Zeliang to reinstate him as soon as the violence subsided.
The problem began when Leizeitsu decided to contest the by-poll this past August and won from the Northern Angami seat, which had been vacated for him by his son. With help from the BJP and state governor P.B. Acharya (an old RSS hand in the Northeast), Zeliang unseated Leizeitsu.
With the NPF a divided house and a split imminent, Leizeitsu, on July 19, 2017, held a meeting of central office bearers in state capital Kohima where the party resolved to break ties with the BJP. However, in the ensuing months, both factions of the NPF finally decided to come together at the behest of the Election Commission of India (ECI) because of the nearing assembly polls so that there would be no confusion among the voters regarding their election symbols.
The end of the ceasefire
But the truce has eventually proved to be short-lived. On January 16, in a significant political development, the NPF decided to reaffirm the July 2017 resolution and snap ties with the BJP.
Interestingly, though the party’s central executive categorically stated in the meeting that Rio would not be allowed to return to state politics before ending his term as the Lok Sabha member, it picked Zeliang as the party’s chief ministerial candidate for the coming polls.
Sources in the NPF told The Wire that the decision was taken keeping in mind Zeliang “weighing the option of leaving NPF lately in favour of the National People’s Party” (NPP), led by Conrad Sangma. This past week, Zeliang is learnt to have had a close-door meeting with Sangma at his Dimapur residence. Sangma, during a visit to Dimapur this past December, launched the party in Nagaland and told reporters that it would contest the assembly polls in the state.
Sources said what might have triggered Zeliang to reach out to NPP was Leizeitsu’s decision to keep out all his trusted MLAs from the working committee formed this past December 29 for the ensuing polls.
“He developed the worry that Leizeitsu may try not to give party tickets to his supporters and thereby cut his clout. The 17-member committee, however, included Zeliang,” a source said.
“Taken by surprise by Lezeitsu’s move, Zeliang even reached out to Union home minister Rajnath Singh, seeking the postponement of the assembly elections. He suggested that the polls be postponed till the Naga Accord is finalised,” the source added.
As per media reports, Singh had turned down the request, stating that “it is the domain of the Election Commission”. State BJP sources told The Wire on January 17 that though “Zeliang is close to Ram Madhav (BJP national general secretary in charge of the Northeast), he has refused to take up his offer to join the BJP as he thinks the party will not be able to win too many seats on its own in the Christian majority state.”
However, BJP, by January 16, managed to get his close aide and former home minister Y Patton to cross sides from the NPF stable and join it.