Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio is confident of bringing peace to the conflict-ridden state. And it is with this confidence that he is contesting from the only Lok Sabha seat in the northeastern state.
In 2002, Rio was the home minister when he resigned from the Congress government, accusing the then chief minister, SC Jamir, of stalling the peace process between the Centre and the Naga nationalist groups.
His resignation sent shockwaves across Nagaland, but the Congress, which gave Rio his electoral break, remained unfazed. A year later, Rio joined the Naga People’s Front (NPF). With the help of the BJP and other regional parties, he formed the Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN), which won the 2003 Assembly polls.
It was a sweet revenge for Rio, who ended the Congress’ decade-long rule in the state. Ever since, he has been the chief minister, but a solution to the Naga peace process, which began in 1997, remains a distant dream.
“The solution to the Naga peace process is the core issue and I want to take it up in Parliament. If elected, I can push for a solution,” Rio told Tehelka on the sidelines of an election rally in Dimapur.
It is rare to see a chief minister run for the Lok Sabha unless he has the chance of playing a larger role in national politics. But Rio is not the odd man out.
In his mission, Rio is banking on two factors: His own electoral victory and the NDA coming to power. As the BJP is one of the main constituents of DAN, Rio will support the party at the Centre. To mark its presence in the Northeast, the BJP will induct him in the Cabinet. That is where Rio feels he will make a difference by pursing the Naga peace talks, which are struck in limbo.
Rio’s decision to contest the Lok Sabha polls has also had an impact on the NPF’s protests in Arunachal Pradesh, where his party is contesting in the Naga-dominated areas. The NPF has also fielded candidates in Manipur for the Lok Sabha polls. In fact, the Congress in Manipur has complained to the Election Commission against Rio for making communal speeches during poll rallies in the Naga-dominated hill areas of Manipur.
At the rally, Rio accused Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh of “failing to protect the state’s minority communities, including Nagas and Kukis”.
In Nagaland, the Congress has fielded former Union minister KV Pusa against Rio, but it does not appear that the party will be able to pose a huge threat to the CM.
A close aide of Rio points out that he understands that the stalemate in the Naga peace process is not appreciated by the people, neither are the people keen to support the rebel groups. The state has not seen any major growth in infrastructure, employment generation and poverty alleviation since Rio took over in 2003. There are also allegations of large-scale corruption in the DAN government and Rio wants a role reversal to show the people that he and his party intend to go to any extend to bring peace to the state.
In doing so, Rio is perhaps risking the stability of his party. After Rio, there are many contenders for the chief minister’s post. Senior ministers such as TR Zeliang, G Kaito Aye and Noke Konyak are already in the race. In all likelihood, the NPF might ask party president Dr Shurhozelie to take up the top job in order to avoid a tussle within the party. But at the age of 88, Shurhozelie is not keen to replace Rio.
According to BJP sources, the party’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, has sent feelers to Rio since he is also the convener of the North East Regional Political Front, which includes several regional parties in the Northeast such as the Asom Gana Parishad and the Mizo National Front. Modi wants to gain a big chunk of seats in the Northeast and Rio looks all set to help his quest.