Ruling Naga People’s Front (NPF) legislators in Nagaland have certainly taken a fancy for the seesaw game or else they would not have revolted against octogenarian chief minister Shurhozelie Liezietsu whom they brought out of retirement for installation in the hot seat a little more than four months ago. The necessity to seek out Mr Shurhozelie, the party president, for the CM’s post arose in February because the NPF legislators had rebelled against T.R. Zeliang, whom they wanted out in the wake of the riotous situation in Kohima, the capital, and elsewhere over the decision to hold the civic polls with 33 per cent reservation for women, something sections of Nagas or Naga social and political groups do not approve of. One can understand the compulsions in February that had led to Mr Zeliang’s ouster. A sizeable chunk of the NPF leadership perhaps thought in view of the state elections due early next year, the party cannot afford to be seen as one that can go against popular wishes, that perceived to be against reservation for women. Mr Zeliang was seen as somebody who wanted to go by the Constitution and the law and not by tradition or prevailing customary laws that almost prohibit Naga women from participating in active politics. But what has happened now that Mr Zeliang has suddenly become acceptable to those very NPF MLAs who forced him out? Well, the Naga electorate is agitated with the Central Nagaland Tribes Council (CNTC) on Saturday calling for the immediate dissolution of the state Assembly and imposition of President’s rule.
The latest rebellion is attributed to alleged nepotism practised by Mr Shurhozelie, who made his son adviser to the chief minister with the rank and status of a Cabinet minister and equivalent pay and perks. But are things really so simple? Before dawn on July 8, a fleet of cars, mostly SUVs, drove into a luxury resort near Kaziranga, in adjoining Assam. This resort is familiar territory to NPF legislators as it is the same place where they stayed and confabulated four months ago and succeeded in ousting Mr Zeliang. This time, it is Mr Zeliang who brought his flock to Kaziranga, least worried about the fact that the national park is submerged under flood waters and the approach to the resort itself was flooded! Here the arithmetic begins: Mr Zeliang claims support of 34 of the NPF’s 47 MLAs and seven of the eight Independent MLAs. He has since staked his claim to form a new government. There are four BJP MLAs and one seat is vacant, making the effective strength of the Nagaland Assembly 59. In Kohima, Mr Shurhozelie acted fast and suspended 10 dissident NPF MLAs. Well, the governor obviously enters the scene and asks Mr Shurhozelie to prove his majority on the floor of the House by July 15. The high court, after Mr Shurhozelie moved a petition, stayed the floor test until July 17.
Mr Shurhozelie argued that the governor cannot summon a House session without the chief minister’s advice. Simultaneously, Mr Shurhozelie revoked the suspension of the 10 MLAs and also revoked the suspension of the state’s lone Lok Sabha MP and former chief minister Neiphiu Rio. Mr Rio was suspended from the NPF in May last year on charges of revolting against Mr Zeliang. Both Mr Rio and Mr Zeliang are said to have now patched up their differences and have joined in the move to oust Mr Shurhozelie. Is it only an “internal matter of the NPF” as some of the party leaders are claiming lately? An answer to this question, by way of an inference, was provided by Mr Shurhozelie himself when he told a newspaper that there was an attempt by “some BJP leaders, including some from Guwahati”, to get a section of NPF MLAs merge with the BJP. Mr Shurhozelie was quoted as saying that the BJP was trying to repeat what it did in Arunachal Pradesh — encouraging the Congress MLAs to first merge with the People’s Party of Arunachal before the majority of the PPA MLAs joined the BJP. The NPF and BJP are allies — while the BJP is a part of the NPF-led government in Nagaland, in Manipur, the NPF is a coalition partner of the BJP-led government.
This has triggered fears among sections within the NPF, particularly the group loyal to Mr Shurhozelie, of a possible BJP attempt to gobble up the key regional party in Nagaland ahead of the 2018 state elections. The BJP cannot be directly charged with triggering the current Nagaland crisis, but the fact also remains that the saffron party has adopted a proactive approach to consolidate its base in the Northeast, for long a Congress bastion. That is the reason why, after the massive Assam victory, the BJP has set up the North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) to expand the party’s base in the region in collaboration with the regional forces.
With eight states and 25 Lok Sabha seats, the Northeast has turned into a major playing field for the BJP, bent on establishing a pan-India base. Ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP would like to ensure the party consolidates in the eight states, four of which — Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura — will go to the polls next year. The way in which the BJP stitched up an alliance in Manipur not only exposed the fact that the Congress was slow to react, it also demonstrated the sheer political will of the saffron party to seize every opportunity that comes its way. That the Congress had more numbers and could actually have forged an alliance remained just a possibility in front of the BJP’s speed maths.
The current crisis in Nagaland might provide observers an opportunity to gauge the BJP’s gameplan in Nagaland. There is still some confusion on whether the four BJP MLAs are siding with the veteran Mr Shurhozelie or backing the man making a comeback bid, Mr Zeliang. Actually, it would be interesting to watch the role that Mr Rio is going to play in the days ahead. He quit the chief minister’s post of his own, and contested the Lok Sabha polls in 2014 with the apparent understanding with the BJP leadership that he would be given a berth in the Union Cabinet should the party come to power. After Mr Modi won with an absolute majority. Mr Rio was cold shouldered by the BJP, something he detested. At one stage, it was rumoured he would be floating a new party ahead of the state elections next year. Now that the NPF has revoked his suspension from the party, has Mr Rio once again come close to the BJP? The Nagaland arithmetic will take a few more days to get solved. On Saturday, however, the Zeliang group’s numbers appeared to have swelled as he and 35 other NPF MLAs and seven Independents (a total of 43) met governor P.B. Acharya and physically demonstrated his majority, indicating that he has an edge.