Nagaland could soon get its fourth chief minister in three years.
Just four months after he took charge as chief minister in February, Shurhozelie Liezietsu of the Nagaland People’s Front finds his position threatened, with 41 of the Nagaland Assembly’s 59 lawmakers demanding on Monday that he step down.
The Nagaland Assembly has had no Opposition party since 2015, when the Nagaland People’s Front merged eight Congress MLAs with it. The Bharatiya Janata Party too is a junior partner in the alliance.
However, internal squabbles and rebellions have beset the government for the last few years.
Exit Neiphiu Rio
The first signs of an intra-party squabble came to the fore after the 2014 general elections. Neiphiu Rio, the chief minister at the time (from the Nagaland People’s Front) resigned from the post amid wide-spread speculation that he would be made a minister in the newly formed BJP government at the Centre. The Naga People’s Front had supported the BJP in the 2014 general elections and Rio had won the sole Lok Sabha seat from the state.
Even as Rio was about to hand over the baton to veteran Nagaland People’s Front leader Noke Wangnao, there was a rift in the party. A section of the party wanted Taditui Rangkhau Zeliang, then the Planning and Co-ordination Minister in the government, to take over from Rio. After a bitter power struggle, Zeliang had his way.
However, Zeliang’s tenure was to be far from smooth. In early January 2015, a group of Naga People’s Front MLAs openly revolted against him, electing then commerce minister G Kaito Aye as the new leader of the legislature party. According to the political grapevine, it was Rio, given a cold-shoulder by Modi in Delhi, who had stage-managed the rebellion to wrest power back from Zeilang.
Zeliang, however, tided over the crisis with the help of the Congress. Not only did he suspend the dissident lawmakers, he managed to convince eight Congress MLAs to support him – the eight finally joined the Naga People’s Front in November, 2015. With that not only did he weather the storm, he also managed to ensure that there was no opposition to the government in the Assembly.
In May 2016, Rio was suspended for alleged “anti-party” activities.
If Zeliang thought his troubles would vanish with the ouster of Rio, he was proved wrong, for an even bigger crisis awaited him. In December, the state election commission announced that elections to urban local bodies would be held early in 2017, with 33% reservation for women. Naga tribal bodies, which enjoy great influence over public life, vehemently opposed the reservation, claiming it went against Naga customary laws that are protected by Article 371 of the Constitution.
According to Article 371, any law that is at odds with Naga customary laws or social and religious practices would not apply to Nagaland unless the state assembly passed a resolution allowing it. Significantly, customary laws and practices vary from tribe to tribe, and the Constitution does not define what qualifies as a customary law.
The protests against women’s reservation snowballed into a major controversy and turned violent . In February, succumbing to public pressure, Zeliang put in his papers and the elections were postponed.
Zeilang’s resignation was followed by high drama over the selection of his successor. Several Naga lawmakers were huddled in a resort in neighbouring Assam’s Kaziranga for days as two names did the rounds for the post of chief minister: that of Rio and Naga People’s Front President Shurhozelie Liezietsu. Eventually, the camp supporting Liezietsu won.
But political instability returned to Nagaland within months. On Saturday, Zeliang approached Governor PB Acharya claiming he has the numbers to form the new government. He claimed the support of 33 Naga People’s Front legislators and seven Independents, all of whom are currently holed up in a resort in Assam’s Kaziranga.
However, what led to the current upheaval is a mystery, as Zeliang and Liezietsu were considered to be close.
A statement issued by the rebel lawmakers on Sunday indicates that the the dissent against Liezietsu is connected to his decision to appoint his son Khriehu Leizeitsu as his advisor, a post that comes with cabinet status and pay. “...his true colours of power mongering and nepotism has been completely exposed and his greediness for power is something that is in total contravention to the very concept of the Indian democracy,” the statement alleged.
The statement also said that Leizeitsu was “forcefully clinging to the chair of the Chief Minister” with the support of just 10 MLAs in a house of 60.
Meanwhile, Rio is said to have buried his differences with Zeliang. In May, a new party called Democratic Progressive Party was launched by Naga People’s Front rebels who were close to Rio. The party’s president, Chingwang Konyak, a former Parliamentarian from the state, was an adviser to Rio, while its secretary Abu Metha is known to be one of Rio’s closest confidantes. On May 19, Metha had told Scroll.in that while Rio wasn’t part of the new party, he could be in the near future. There have been no official announcements since.
But Naga People Front’s working president Apong Pongener said that “all efforts were being made to work out a patch-up”. between the dissenting MLAs and the government. The party’s spokesperson Achumbemo Kikon told Scroll.in that a reconciliation was being worked out. When asked if the party suspected Rio’s hand behind the turmoil, Kikon said the “party’s door is open for everyone.”
Murmurs of Rio’s possible involvement gathered pace after Liezietsu, in an interview to the Times of India published on Sunday, said he had offered to give up his chair for Zeliang, but the latter had reportedly turned it down. When asked if Rio was connected to the crisis, he said, “I think Rio is with Zeliang but, I have no clear idea.”