Oil scam leaves a slippery trail

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In the hot seat Nagaland CM TR Zeliang (left) with PM Narendra Modi
In the hot seat Nagaland CM TR Zeliang (left) with PM Narendra Modi. Photo: PIB

The Nagaland government had allotted a major oil extraction contract to a questionable company called Metropolitan Oil and Gas. The company’s credentials and the allotment process itself — mindful of the coal block allocations cancelled recently by the Supreme Court — are under question and Central agencies are also scrutinising the transaction following Tehelka’s report (Oil stains on the Naga regime, 25 October).

What was the state government’s role and who was responsible for this allotment? Was it incompetence or did a political leader rig the process and favour Metropolitan in getting a contract it may not deserve?

The political fate of Nagaland took a turn after SC Jamir finished his term as chief minister in March 2003 after a decade in power (Jamir is now serving as the governor of Odisha).

Neiphiu Rio was the home minister in Jamir’s Cabinet between 1998 and 2002 and quit over differences with the chief minister regarding a peace accord when the state was smack in the middle of an internal conflict.

In 2002, Congress leader Rio joined the Naga People’s Front (NPF), which supported the Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN), of which the BJP was a member.

Led by Rio, the DAN won the 2003 Assembly election. The Congress emerged as the largest party with 21 seats in the 59-member Assembly, but the DAN had more MLAs in its kitty and Rio went on to form a coalition government. The Congress had claimed that armed rebel groups had supported the NPF and some of them had prevented people from voting in many constituencies.

Meanwhile, in 2002, TR Zeliang also left the Congress and formed the Nagaland Congress. A year later, he joined the NPF and was inducted into Rio’s Cabinet as the minister for geology and mines. In 2004, he was elected as the sole Rajya Sabha MP from Nagaland.

In 2008, Zeliang returned to state politics and was elected an MLA on an NPF ticket and became the planning minister during Rio’s second tenure as chief minister.

In 2012, when the state government planned to allot the oil blocks, Rio was heading the government, but sources in the government claim that Zeliang had clout over the allocation process because it fell in his domain.

The policy measure to allow the allotment of oil blocks was also from the planning department, then under Zeliang.

The news of who was pulling the strings never leaked out but since Rio was at the helm of the government, his involvement will be questioned in any investigation.

This May, Rio was elected as the sole Lok Sabha MP from the state and the NPF announced its support to the DAN government. Zeliang took over as the cm and replaced five of Rio’s ministers with six MLAs of his own choice while retaining some from Rio’s Cabinet.

Zeliang’s elevation seems to have sped up things for Metropolitan, a company that was incorporated barely weeks after the allotment had been notified in 2012.

This has created a tricky situation for the BJP, which wants to use the momentum to expand to every possible corner of the country. Last year, it focussed on the Northeast by forming a working group committee led by SS Ahluwalia, who went on to win from Darjeeling on a BJP ticket. Kiran Rijiju, an MP from Arunachal Pradesh, was made the minister of state for home affairs.

There are currently four BJP MLAs in Nagaland, three of whom won on NCP tickets before shifting allegiance. Word is that they want a place in the DAN government as long as Rio replaces Zeliang with someone who has a clean reputation. The BJP’s national command might just agree to that with the rider of a clean face leading the state. The BJP needs the NPF’s support. The party does not have a major base in Nagaland and the NPF candidate, Neiphrezo Keditsu, defeated the BJP’s Visasolie Lhoungu a fortnight ago in the bypoll for the Northern Angami-2 constituency vacated by Rio.

So, the ball is now in Rio’s court provided he retains his writ over the NPF and manages to replace Zeliang. In the meantime, a knock on the door from sleuths investigating the oil block allotments is not far away for Nagaland.

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