By Nirendra Dev
Neiphiu Rio had made a significant leap towards power in the state, but finally had to bow down to the political machinations of 81-year-old Shurhozelie, a seasoned politician also known for anti-Congress stance.
The final endorsement from the central BJP leadership allowing Nagaland People’s Front (NPF) chief Shurhozelie Liezitsu to take over as new Nagaland Chief Minister replacing an embattled T R Zeliang has many facets.
One simple interpretation is the BJP wants to hit many birds with its ‘Nagaland move’ endorsing Shurhozelie.
The decision that is seen as a setback to state’s lone Lok Sabha MP Neiphiu Rio, also a former Chief Minister who led NPF to victory in three consecutive polls 2003, 2008 and 2013, is also linked to BJP’s ambitious electoral game plans in Manipur.
The NPF has fielded 15 candidates in Naga tribal dominated hilly region in Manipur, that goes to the polls on March 4 and March 8. In 2012 assembly elections in Manipur, NPF had emerged as a force to reckon with and has won four seats out of 12 it contested.
The on-going socio-political turmoil in Nagaland over demand for Chief Minister T R Zeliang’s resignation and violent protests to women quota in urban local bodies had definitely harmed NPF’s election campaign in Manipur. Mr Shurhozelie himself had said the “confusion” in Nagaland had affected party’s election campaign.
BJP is not ready to part away with the possible victory of NPF in 6-8 seats in Manipur hills.
Moreover, the BJP leadership in Delhi after initially agreeing for a tough political player like Neiphiu Rio to replace T R Zeliang in the last moment again decided to back Shurhozelie as that would save any legislative and organisational split in the NPF.
“A split in NPF at this juncture would have spoiled NPF’s electoral prospects in Manipur immensely. All issues were considered in details and now the NPF leaders and Nagaland ministers after swearing in on February 22 can focus on elections in Manipur,” said a BJP source.
The BJP for that matter has a tough election battle to fight in Manipur as the local state unit of BJP is focused on “pro-Meitei politics” in the valleys chiefly against Congress led by a tough campaigner and incumbent Chief Minister O. Ibobi Singh.
“BJP’s politics in Manipur is pro-Meitei who are Hindus,” the source said but NPF, which paradoxically remains a decade old ally of the BJP in neighbouring Nagaland, is pro-Nagas and also pro-Christians.
“Few extra seats in 60-member assembly can always give BJP a mileage after the elections,” the source said.
In Manipur, however, the division of Naga areas by the Ibobi Singh ministry in December 2016 has threatened to divide the tribal Nagas, Kukis and other smaller hilly tribes.
This division – between Nagas and Kukis – could play spoilsport to Prime Minister Modi’s ambitions to capture another northeastern Indian state for BJP – after Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
Interestingly Manipur, which has substantial Naga (tribe) population- who are essentially practicing Christians- in the run up to the polls are largely perceived to be soft towards ‘pro-Hindu BJP’.
”The Nagas could be inclined to support BJP or its ally Naga People’s Front, primarily because the Modi government at the Centre has entered into an agreement with Naga rebel group NSCN (IM),” the source said.
According to NPF sources, a factor that probably also tilted the balance in favour of Shurhozelie is, while he is the party chief, Mr Rio was “suspended” last year for anti-party activities.
For his part, Mr Rio has, however, denied the charge.
Another source suggest the outgoing Chief Minister T R Zeliang played the ultimate spoilsport to Rio’s chance of getting back to the post, as he solidly pledged his support to veteran Shurhozelie.
Moreover, a section of Prime Minister’s trusted aides working in the northeast feel Neiphiu Rio as a tough mettle with an independent mind would be difficult to handle, when it comes to dealing with NSCN(IM)’s “greater Nagaland” demand.
When Rio was at the helm of affairs in Nagaland, the NPF had started making foray into other states like Arunachal Pradesh and even Jharkhand.
Such an high ambitious game plan may not suit the Central government and also the BJP, which have assured people in other states like Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh that – contrary to Naga insurgent group’s demands- no bifurcation of their states would be allowed
(Nirendra Dev is a senior journalist with United News of India, New Delhi)