On 24 May 2014, TR Zeliang was sworn in as the 16th chief minister of Nagaland after his predecessor Neiphiu Rio made it to the Lok Sabha by winning the only seat in the state. For the past two months, a section of the Naga People’s Front (NPF), which leads the Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN) government, had been lobbying hard for toppling Zeliang. Their efforts took a serious turn this week and Zeliang’s future looks bleak.
The buzz in state capital Kohima clearly points to that fact that at the heart of the political tug-of-war is former chief minister Rio’s attempt to return to state politics. After his Lok Sabha victory, Rio was expecting a berth in the Narendra Modi Cabinet, but his bid to impress the prime minister does not seem to have made a mark.
When Rio left for New Delhi, chasing his dream of playing a bigger role in national politics, he was instrumental in picking Zeliang as his successor. Zeliang was the then finance minister and was known to be a close associate of Rio. Seven months down the line, Rio seems to be masterminding the downfall of Zeliang.
As the NPF MLAs returned to Kohima after the Christmas and New Year vacation, the political churning began in right earnest. On 5 January, the dissidents announced that they wanted to replace Zeliang and named Industries Minister Kaito Aye as their new leader.
Zeliang reacted by sacking two ministers and six parliamentary secretaries, including Aye. NPF chief Shurhozelie Liezietsu suspended them from the party’s primary membership, and the central committee approved the decision, but the dissidents remained defiant.
On 7 January, the dissidents approached Governor PB Acharya and staked their claim to form the new government. They also claimed to have a majority of NPF MLAs in their fold as well as the support of DAN partners — the BJP, NCP, JD(U) — and independents.
“I have always worked hard for the NPF. Even when the party was facing a leadership crisis, I stood by Rio because I believe that if politicians keep fighting for the chair, there will be no development,” says Zeliang. “It was Rio’s own decision to go to New Delhi. He should have concentrated on his job as an elected MP from Nagaland. It is very unfortunate that some disgruntled elements in the NPF have placed their self-interest above the people’s welfare and have been brazenly trying to victimise the people by attempting to disrupt the smooth functioning of the duly elected government. As the chief minister, it is not possible to keep everyone happy. In the NPF, we must not think of personal gains.”
A dissident claims that they are asking for a leadership change not to pave the way for Rio’s return to state politics but to provide a stronger leadership. He alleges that Zeliang has been nothing but “soft and ineffective”.
“We want a leadership change because Zeliang has been a failure,” says a dissident MLA on the condition of anonymity. “We need a strong leader to push for an early solution to the Naga political issue. Zeliang has not been assertive and forceful on this count. In fact, he could not cut much ice with the Narendra Modi regime. The people are upset that even though the prime minister came to Nagaland, Zeliang could not get any special package.”
In the 2013 Assembly election, the NPF registered an empathic triumph under the leadership of Rio, winning 38 of the 60 seats. On top of it, the alliance partners won six seats — the BJP has four MLAs, followed by the NCP and the JD(U) with one each. The government also enjoys the support of eight independent MLAs. The Opposition Congress has eight MLAs in the Assembly.
Rio took over as the chief minister for the third time, but when the 2014 General Election came around, he thought it would be a great opportunity. He was hopeful of a ministry if Modi came to power. Apart from Modi, he was the only chief minister running for the Lok Sabha.
The NPF top brass was not keen on Rio moving to New Delhi as they feared the possibility of a leadership tussle between Zeliang, Aye and senior leader Noke Konyak. In fact, the move led to strained relations between Rio and Liezietsu. Had Rio got a Cabinet berth at the Centre, he would have tried to play a proactive role by pursuing the Naga peace talks, which have been struck in limbo since 1997. But neither Modi nor the BJP showed any interest in giving a chance to the former chief minister.
Now Rio is eyeing a comeback to state politics. If insiders are to be believed, Liezietsu does not want Rio to return. Thus he is backing Zeliang to keep Rio’s return plans at bay and also keep control over the party.
If the dissident camp comes to power, perhaps even Liezietsu might be removed from his post. The man who might be silently pulling the strings is Rio, going on to show that when it comes to Nagaland, he is the sole kingmaker.