The curious case of Neiphiu Rio

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Neiphiu Rio

Kohima, April 3 : Nagaland Chief Minister ’s decision to contest the coming Lok Sabha poll from the lone seat in Nagaland is a rare case in Indian politics. There are numerous instances of ministers at the Centre lobbying with their party leaders to return to State politics. The electoral system took a decisive turn at the turn of the century from the earlier “Congress system” towards a loose system revolving around the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

As this new system stabilised, and coalitions became the norm, regional parties assumed an important and often decisive role in national politics.

They became king-makers or prime minister-makers, which is why one sees so many leaders at the Centre plotting their return to their States and not the other way round.

Curious case

Mr. Rio’s case is all the more perplexing — on the surface — because he’s been Chief Minister of Nagaland since 2003 and there is no challenge to his position. His term ends only in 2018. Nagaland being a small State territorially and demographically has only one Lok Sabha seat. What influence or power will one man wield in Parliament where more than 500 MPs jostle for space, time and power?

There can be only one explanation: Naga national politics. It may be recalled that Mr. Rio’s Naga People’s Front(NPF)-led Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN) government has been very active in supporting the stalemate Indo-Naga peace process which has been on since 1997. The Joint Legislators Forum of the Nagaland Legislative Assembly (JLF-NLA) was formed in 2009, which, under the aegis of the Forum for Naga Reconciliation (FNR), has been pursuing the twin goals of reconciliation of Naga underground groups and completion of the present talks process.

Also to be considered is the present alignment of power in the north-eastern States and the stand they take with regard to the Indo-Naga talks to further appreciate Mr. Rio’s decision. In Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, where opposition to the Naga proposals are strongest, the Congress–led governments have been in power comfortably. In Manipur, the Congress-led coalition, which in all these years has delivered little except that it firmly stood against the Naga demands, was voted back to power in 2012 for the third time. The BJP, which had 26 members out of 60 in the Assembly in 2001, when the State witnessed violent protests on the issue, has since been electorally decimated. The BJP failed to win even a single seat in the last Assembly election in the State. It is the same story in Assam where the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government rode back to power in 2011, also for the third time. In Arunachal Pradesh too, which like Assam stands to lose at least two districts if the Naga demands are met, it was the same Congress government that was in power till March last month, when the Assembly was dissolved on the State Cabinet’s recommendation. In the election to be held simultaneously with the Lok Sabha election on on April 9, the Congress is expected to come back to power.
Now, compare this situation with Nagaland where the NPF-led DAN was voted back to power last year, also for the third time. Mr. Rio has been a vocal supporter of the Naga demands. Also, interestingly, the BJP is a partner in the government.

Mr. Rio’s statement, made while campaigning in Manipur’s Tamenglong district on March 29, that the Nagas have no future with the Congress party, has to be understood in this context. He knows that it was the BJP-led NDA government that officially acknowledged the “unique history and situation of the Nagas” and also conceded to the Naga demand for extension of the ceasefire agreement “without territorial limits” in June 2001. Thuingaleng Muivah and Isak Chishi Swu of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland have often complained about the lack of “decisive” and tall leaders (like Atal Bihari Vajpayee) at the Centre. They all are evidently looking forward to a new BJP-led government at the Centre in the coming election.

Recent news reports suggest that Mr. Rio had decided to take the plunge and contest the national election after a detailed discussion with the top BJP national leadership. A report in The Telegraph(February 5, 2014) stated that “the BJP has already assured Rio of a cabinet berth, if they form the government, in a bid to solve the Naga political problem.” When asked to explain why he decided to contest the Lok Sabha election during a campaign rally at Tamenglong in Manipur, Mr. Rio was quoted as saying that “there is a larger responsibility in Delhi so I have taken this decision.” He could not have been clearer. If he succeeds, his name will deservedly be immortalised.

As things stand, however, it is difficult to visualise how the Indo-Naga political issue will come to an amicable resolution, “honourable” or otherwise. Politics is often described as the art of the possible. In this case, we will have to see if politics can make possible what seems impossible. The northeast may be heading toward some interesting times.

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