On July 19, TR Zeliang returned as chief minister of Nagaland. Back in February, he had been replaced by Shurozelie Leizietsu, after protests against women’s reservation in local civic polls turned violent and prompted demands that Zeliang resign from his post.

But almost immediately after the swearing-in ceremony, Zeliang was expelled from the Naga People’s Front, the party on whose ticket he had contested and won elections in 2013. The expulsion came on the orders of Leizietsu, who happens to be president of the Naga People’s Front, as punishment for “anti-party activities”.

So, two days later, on July 21, when Zeliang had to pass a vote of confidence in the Nagaland Assembly to prove his majority, a rather fundamental question emerged: Who represents the Naga People’s Front now? Is the party that has ruled Nagaland since 2003 and weathered several rebellions on the verge of a permanent split?

Which party whip?

Although Zeliang won the floor test – 47 of the 59 legislators supported him, including 36 from the Naga party – it was not without controversy.

For the special session of the Assembly on Friday, two counter whips were issued by the two warring factions of the Naga People’s Front. The 11 legislators on the Liezietsu camp, which controls the party’s central executive committee, contended that only the president of the Naga People’s Front had the authority to issue a whip. It complained to the Speaker that the rebel members of the legislative Assembly had been suspended by the party – and they could not possibly issue a whip of their own.

Kuzholuzo (Azo) Nienu, one of the 11 MLAs with Liezietsu, pointed out to the Speaker that, in a similar situation in January 2015, the whip issued by the dissenting faction of G Kaito Aye was rejected even though they had the majority. Back then, another mutiny had threatened the Naga People’s Front, as 22 lawmakers led by Aye had rebelled against Zeliang, then chief minister. The party had then subsequently suspended Aye.

This time, however, the Speaker upheld the whip of the dissenting faction, leading to Zeliang winning the trust vote.

‘A flagrant violation of the Constitution’

While that means Zeliang’s chair is safe for now, the confusion over who actually represents the Naga People’s Front still persists.

Achumbemo Kikon, from the Leizietsu camp, claimed the “party was very much intact” and under Leizutsu’s control. “The party has suspended 10 of the dissenters and expelled 18 others,” he said. “So, they have no control over the party.”

Kikon added that the party will take “legal measures” against the dissenting faction soon. He said that they would approach the Gauhati High Court to challenge the new government, but they were not in a hurry. “What the governor did was flagrant violation of the Indian Constitution,” he said. “We will fight back.”

The central executive committee of the Naga People’s Front has made its displeasure known to the state’s governor, Padmanabha Balakrishna Acharya. In a letter, the committee has accused him of acting illegally and at the behest “of your political party the BJP”. The letter also announced that the party had decided to sever all ties with the Bharatiya Janata Party, a junior coalition partner of the Naga People’s Front in the state.

The letter read:

“Your Excellency has turned a blind eye to a monumental travesty of democracy where a member of the Assembly who is expelled from the NPF [Naga People’s Front] for a period of six years has been accepted as the Chief Whip of the very party from which he has been expelled! Your Excellency has been a member of the cabal of legislators who created parliamentary history when they the legislators have elected a Chief Whip themselves without the consent and knowledge of the political party they claim to belong to. And all these while, the official party Whip of the NPF whose Whip was recognised by you since 2014, and whose Whip had effect on February 5, 2015 when the then Chief Minister called for a Vote of Confidence, continues to be the sole and authorised Whip of the NPF!”

A defiant Zeliang

The Zeliang camp is undaunted. Imkong L Imchen, who is part of the new cabinet, said his colleagues in the new government and he were “bona fide MLAs of the NPF [Naga People’s Front]” and that their suspension had “no legal value inside the Assembly”.

“If what the governor did was wrong, let the courts say it,” Imchen said. He added that the BJP was very much a part of the new government. “We will wrest control of the party from the central leadership very soon,” he said. “You’ll see how things will unfold very soon.”

Visasolie Lhoungu, the president of the Nagaland unit of the BJP, said his party supported the “majority of the NPF [Naga People’s Front], that is the Zeliang faction”.

A similar situation had developed in Arunachal Pradesh last year, when the late Kalikho Pul, a dissenting legislator of the Congress, supported by BJP lawmakers, was sworn in as chief minister. However, on July 20, 2016, the Supreme Court restored the previous Congress government in the state while declaring as “unconstitutional” the decisions of Governor Jyoti Prasad Rajkhowa, which led to President’s Rule and the subsequent formation of a government headed by Pul.

What of the anti-defection law?

However, constitutional experts maintain that while the two cases appear similar on the surface, the circumstances are significantly different.

Former solicitor general Mohan Parasaran said the Liezietsu camp was unlikely to find favour with the Supreme Court. “In my view, there is no merit in the argument [of the Liezetsu faction],” he said. “Anti-defection provisions will not get attracted since more than two-thirds of the party have formed the new group.”

According to India’s anti-defection law, a member is disqualified when he or she “voluntarily gives up his membership of a party” and “when he/she votes (or abstains from voting) contrary to the directive issued by the party”.

Constitutional law expert Subhash C Kashyap said, according to rules of the Assembly, if a council of ministers lost the confidence of the House in a floor test, it meant it had lost its legal legitimacy. So far as the anti-defection law went, Kashyap said it was the prerogative of the Speaker. He added: “The Speaker should give both sides a hearing, and if he deems it necessary he can disqualify the members or otherwise. The Speaker’s decision can, however, be challenged in court.”

Another Constitutional law expert Shubhankar Dam said, “A political party is a private entity, so it is the NPF’s [Naga People’s Front’s] constitution which really matters.”

However, Dam explained, if the court upheld the suspension of the rebel MLAs [the Zeliang faction] and refused to recognise the whip issued by them, the anti-defection law may kick in. “Then it becomes a constitutional question, but that will take time.”

‘Door of the party is always open’

Nagaland goes to the polls in the first half of 2018. Meanwhile, the power struggle within the Naga People’s Front continues.

On July 24, the Dimapur division of the party convened another emergency meeting at their offices in Nagaland’s commercial hub. At the meeting, the Dimapur unit reaffirmed its “support to the leadership of Dr. Shurozolie Leizutsua as president NPF [Naga People’s Front]”. However, the meeting also “resolved to appeal to the Dimpaur district legislator”, currently with the Zeliang faction, “to come to mainstreams”.

A reconciliation, it seems, is not off the table. “The door of the party is always open for the larger interest of the Nagas in general and the party in particular,” the minutes of the meeting said.