Shurhozelie Liezietsu was Lear-like as he stood up to speak. “In 1963, the 16-point agreement was signed,” he began, referring to the agreement that made Nagaland a state within the Indian Union. “The day the agreement was signed, the Army was all over the state. There was firing all over the state. It was not an agreement to bring peace – during that time, most of our Naga leaders were in jail or in hiding. When it failed to bring peace, we needed to form a political party.” And that was the genesis of the Naga People’s Front, he explained rather wistfully.

It has been a difficult year for the party president. Just last February, after an agitation over urban local body elections unseated TR Zeliang as Nagaland chief minister, Liezietsu replaced him. But after months of bitter power struggles within the party and several political upsets, Zeliang was back in the post. As Nagaland prepares for Assembly elections on February 27, Liezietsu has decided not even to contest a seat.

Then, just as the party he headed reached a fragile equilibrium, there were more reverses. In January, Neiphiu Rio, former Nagaland chief minister and the star leader of the Naga People’s Front, left the party fold. At the end of January, both Zeliang and Rio were in Delhi, negotiating seat-sharing deals with the Bharatiya Janata Party. Rio would finally prevail, which meant that the Naga People’s Front ended its 15-year-long alliance with the BJP in Nagaland.

And here he was at a hotel in Kohima, a slight, weary man of 81, his party unravelling around him. Liezietsu had to explain to a room full of tribal and civil society leaders why the Naga People’s Front was wary of boycotting elections. The leaders had demanded that elections be deferred until a solution to the decades-old Naga question could be found – the Centre was already in talks with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) and six other armed groups. But the Naga People’s Front had been betrayed by national parties before, Liezietsu pointed out. Had they not obeyed the boycott call in 1998, only to have Congress leaders sneak in their nominations in the last minute, he asked.

Liezietsu is described as the last of the staunch regionalists who once made up the Naga People’s Front. “If IM feels BJP ruling Nagaland will be good for a solution, they are wrong,” he said. “A regional party should be ruling here. I may be wrong.”

‘Fide non Armis’

Liezietsu called the Naga People’s Front the “first organised political party of Nagaland”, whose “main aim was settlement of the Naga political issue”. Its symbol, a rooster, is accompanied by the phrase “Fide non Armis”. Faith, not arms. The party was to achieve politically what Naga militant groups had tried with arms: the integration of all Naga areas, both in India and Myanmar, and autonomy. On secession, once a key demand of the armed outfits, the party is silent.

In 1963, it started life as the Democratic Party of Nagaland and was later renamed the Nagaland People’s Council. It was in 2002 that the party changed its name to the Naga People’s Front.

It signalled a shift in emphasis. The “cock party”, as it is known locally, now claimed to represent all Nagas, not just those living in Nagaland. “Through the party’s initiative, we are providing a platform, where all Nagas can come together thereby paving the way for emotional integration of the Pan-Naga family,” says the party website. The article goes on to express pleasure at the fact that the Nagas of Myanmar had been politically recognised. On this side of the border, the rooster flag now flutters in the Naga areas of Manipur, where it won four Assembly seats last year, and a regional office has been set up in Arunachal Pradesh.

But has the party lost ownership of the peace process it claimed to champion so avidly, with the armed groups in talks with the BJP-led government at the Centre? Nagaland Home Minister Kuzholuzo Azo Nienu says not. “It is the Naga People’s Front which has pushed this issue, since Congress times,” he said. “The BJP is taking it up. We have brought out the agenda, talks have to be between the government of India and the NSCN [IM], the conflict parties.”

Imkong L Imchen, Nagaland’s minister for health and family welfare, agreed that the role of the regional party was to be a facilitator for the talks, a go-between for the government and underground groups.

Nevertheless, after three terms in power and five years of a dysfunctional government, the party is associated more with corruption than with a Naga solution. Before the elections this month, the Naga People’s Front has other battles to fight: dissidence within, which has led to several leaders abandoning ship, and the emergence of an Opposition as the BJP ties up with Rio’s new party, the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party.

Imkong L Imchen, a minister in the Nagaland Government. Photo credit: Ipsita Chakravarty
Imkong L Imchen, a minister in the Nagaland Government. Photo credit: Ipsita Chakravarty

The Rio unravelling

“I have taken oath four times, I can’t for the fifth time,” declared Y Patton, Nagaland’s former home minister who switched from the Naga People’s Front to the BJP in January. “Every time we used to go [to] Kaziranga to see those animals. I told the MLAs, I will never bring my family here.”

As Patton pointed out, Nagaland has seen four changes of chief minister in five years. Twice over the last year, party leaders have gone into a huddle at a resort in Kaziranga, the famous wildlife reserve in neighbouring Assam, engaged in intense negotiations.

In the 2013 Assembly elections, the party came to power with Rio as chief minister. Rio had already headed the government for two terms. Under Rio, the party had made steady gains. In the 2003 elections, it won just 19 seats but was able to form government with the help of allies, including the BJP, which won seven seats. In 2008, it won 26 seats while the BJP managed just two. In 2013, its tally went up to 38 while the BJP had just one seat. Over the next five years, the Naga People’s Front tally would grow to well over 40, after a raft of defections from other parties.

In 2015, as the Congress and independents joined the government or lent it outside support, Nagaland became a government without an Opposition, with all 60 legislators sitting on the treasury benches. Now, there is an exodus the other way. Ahead of the elections, the Democratic Alliance of Nagaland has crumbled, with legislators handing in their resignations. It is now left with just 30 legislators from the Naga People’s Front.

Party leaders readily admit that the trouble started with Rio’s desertion in 2014, when he left for Delhi in the hope of a Union cabinet berth. First, as Rio prepared to vacate the chief ministerial post for Noke Wangnao, the party split in two, with a rival faction supporting Zeliang. Eventually, Zeliang prevailed. He weathered a rebellion in 2015 but had to vacate the post in February 2017 for Liezietsu. Five months later, the governor dismissed Liezietsu for failing to turn up for a floor test in the Assembly. Zeliang was back, splitting the party into two once again. It was only in December that a truce was negotiated, with Zeliang continuing as chief minister and Liezietsu as party president.

“The NPF party is like a friendly match, only so many players get injured,” said Imchen with a laugh. “Mr Rio deciding to leave for Lok Sabha was the root cause. The moment Rio left, the leadership tussle began. During his chief ministership, the whole legislature cooperated with him, so he emerged as a popular leader.”

Imchen also said it was Rio who had engineered the formation of the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party last year, even though he claimed to still be a part of the Naga People’s Front at that time. Rio formally joined the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party last month.

Azo also concedes that the party was thrown into disarray. “Every Tom, Dick and Harry wants to become home minister,” he said. “All have become power mongers, fence sitters.”

He said the antidote to this crisis was to introduce fresh faces who are not associated with the tainted government. Yet, even after nominations for the elections have been filed and cleared, the Naga People’s Front remains a party in flux. February 12 was the last official date for candidates to withdraw their nominations. Rio’s only rival in the Northern Angami II constituency, a candidate from the Naga People’s Front, pulled out of the polls on that day. But the final picture could become clear only a week before the polls, Azo said.

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Split from the BJP

The exodus seems to have been triggered by the party’s decision to part ways with the BJP. The coalition had been rocky since last year, when the faction led by Liezietsu decided to jettison the BJP. The decision was reversed later, and it was only in February that the final break came.

Patton, for one, said he chose to resign from the Naga People’s Front when it decided to sever ties with the BJP. “NPF, NDPP, whatever regional party, we need to have an alliance with Delhi,” he exclaimed. Only such an alliance would lead to meaningful peace talks with armed groups, he added.

The other reason why legislators might gravitate to the BJP is the lucre of Central funds, often the only source of money for states in the North East.

But it was no easy break. The coalition had held since 2003 and the Naga People’s Front is still officially part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance at the Centre. Just days before the split, Azo had spoken hopefully of a post-poll alliance with the BJP if an understanding did not materialise then. The BJP’s state unit president, Visasolie Lhoungu, had described the Naga People’s Front as a “natural ally” of the national party. “It is not we who broke the alliance,” Lhoungu said defensively.

But an ebullient BJP, with the three north-eastern states of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh already in the bag, a government at the Centre and a growing presence in Nagaland, was not willing to be a marginal presence anymore. In 2013, it had contested 13 seats. According to Patton, it had asked for a 20:40 seat-sharing deal, with the BJP playing the junior partner. But it did not work out.

For 15 years, the Naga People’s Front has been the gravitational force in Nagaland’s politics, drawing even Opposition parties into its fold. If the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party-BJP alliance wins, that will end. For now, the party is putting a brave face on the chaos within. “It is the leaders who have lost credibility, not the NPF,” said Azo.