Mission North East: Will BJP formula of favouring dissidents repeat Assam magic in Nagaland?

Is the BJP going to apply its successful Assam formula to Nagaland?  That's the question that is on everyone's mind after a few veterans of Nagaland politics launched a new political party on Wednesday ahead of next year's Assembly elections.

 Mission North East: Will BJP formula of favouring dissidents repeat Assam magic in Nagaland?

File image of Neiphiu Rio. AFP

After all, the party's North East playbook—bringing high-profile dissidents into the fold—has paid off handsomely in the past.

The formation of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) by Member of Parliament Chingwang Konyak, who was once a close aide of Neiphiu Rio, the former chief minister of Nagaland, is seen by many as an attempt by the BJP to win the Assembly elections by roping in several dissidents from the ruling Naga People's Front (NPF).

Rio, a Member of Parliament, was suspended from the NPF a year ago. Although no direct link between the BJP and DPP can be drawn at the moment, speculation is rampant that Rio is close to BJP leadership at the Centre.

Just before the DPP was formed, Nagaland Page reported: "The new regional party is expected to be led by former Lok Sabha MP Chingwang Konyak and remote-controlled by suspended NPF Lok Sabha MP Neiphiu Rio."

Speaking to Firstpost, DPP president Konyak said: “ We expect many leaders from various parties to join us. As of now, few leaders from the NPF, who are not MLAs would be joining us.”

Two days ago, P Mulang, Officer on Special Duty  (Backward Tribe), resigned as NPF general secretary. Although Mulang has not joined the DPP, the resignation is seen as a significant development.

The Nagaland Post, speculating that a number of NPF MLAs would join the DPP, reported: “In the recent reshuffle after Chief Minister Shurhozelie Liezietsu took over, several ministers and parliamentary secretaries were dropped from the ministry. It is believed that all of them will likely join the newly-floated DPP in the upcoming weeks ahead of the state Assembly election.”

The newspaper also reported that Rio’s loyalists have been sidelined in the Nagaland government, though a few of them have been given positions such as parliamentary secretaries and advisers. Speculation is rife that Rio may join the DPP along with his MLAs.

Rio, a former three-time Nagaland chief minister, contested parliamentary elections in 2014, expecting a Cabinet berth in the NDA government. He left his associate TR Zeliang to lead the state. However, things didn't work out for him.

In 2016, Rio was suspended from the NPF  after he was seen making a play to reclaim his former position as Nagaland chief minister by throwing his weight behind a group of dissident MLAs. His second attempt in early 2017—after the then chief minister TR Zeliang had to step down in the face of a mass protest over 33% reservation of seats for women in the civic body polls—also proved unsuccessful.

An NPF leader, speaking to Hindustan Times on the condition of anonymity, hinted that Rio had the support of BJP leadership second time around. “The BJP helped Zeliang and Rio patch up in Delhi, for the latter to take over as chief minister,” the leader reportedly told the newspaper.

Rio flew from Delhi to Kohima and garnered support from a number of MLAs, but party leadership neither approved of this development nor revoked his suspension. Rather, party president Shurhozelie Liezietsu stepped in and took over as chief minister.

At  a time when his followers are sidelined in the corridors of power, it is more than a little likely that Rio will join the DPP.

Speaking to Firstpost, Rio didn't seem opposed to the idea. “I am a Member of Parliament. Hence,  I cannot be part of forming a new outfit. But if the people want a change, no one can stop it from happening. After all, we live in a democracy."

Interestingly, Rio also criticised the NPF, saying there was a huge demand for a new regional party in his state as the ruling NPF has not adequately dealt with crises. “In the case of 33% reservation of seats for women in civic body polls, the government was seen as confronting the public rather than consulting them."

If speculations are proved correct about Rio joining the DPP, the former chief minister who led a nascent NPF to power on three occasions will massively shift the political equation in Nagaland.  The growing anti-incumbency against the NPF-led government, which has been in power for three terms, leaves the situation ripe for a change.

Nagaland's political landscape is dominated by the NPF. The party has 48 MLAs in the 60-member state Assembly. Among the remaining 12 MLAs, four are from the BJP and eight are independent. All of them are allied with the NPF, which means there is basically no Opposition in the Assembly.

The DPP could very well fit this gap and potentially emerge as the alternative to the NPF. Rio is first among equals—the most powerful of the dissidents who are constantly at loggerheads with the NPF—and is likely to find this party as a suitable vehicle for his return to power.

The chatter in the political circles is that the DPP may well come in handy for the BJP to gain power in the Christian-dominated state.  The BJP, a junior partner in the NPF-led government, may not be in a position to expand its electoral dominance on its own, although it is raring to go.

Joel Naga, a Nagaland social activist, explains the resistance to the BJP. “I would not say that the Naga people are against the BJP. However, they are wary, especially after the beef ban row. We are very sensitive about our eating habits."

Naga, speaking on another hurdle for the BJP, added, “At the moment, the people have no reason to believe that the BJP is different from the NPF-led Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN). The BJP has been an ally to what is viewed as one of the most corrupt governments in state history. We have had scams larger than the Bihar fodder scam. But the BJP continues to remain an NPF ally."

A BJP state leader, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that the BJP's growth in Nagaland has been hamstrung due to a lack of high-profile leaders. “We did not have powerful leaders in Assam and Manipur. But that gap was filled in by bringing in people from the Congress and having them go up against their former colleagues. But the same formula can't be applied in Nagaland. Here, the ruling party is a long-time NDA ally. If we start poaching their leaders it will send the wrong message," he said.

“ In such a catch-22 situation, if a party like DPP emerges with strong leadership, it can definitely bail us out. After the election, it might be possible for us to claim a greater share of power if we help form the government," he added.

“Minor variations in the Assam formula can be brought by striking a pre-poll seat sharing alliance with DPP, to ensure that anti-NPF votes are shared only between the two allies.Given the strong anti-incumbency against NPF, the number of votes against it is likely to increase by leaps and bounds,” he explained.

The leader also said that a prospective alliance with DPP can be extended after the election, or the new party can be absorbed by the BJP.

In the North East, defections in large numbers from a regional party to a national party is nothing new.

In 2016, the BJP formed the first full-fledged government in the region after Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu and 33 MLAs from the People's Party of Arunachal defected to it.

“But for all that to happen, NPF bigwigs have to join the DPP or defect to us. Until then, we are keeping our fingers crossed," the BJP leader said.


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Updated Date: May 19, 2017 21:37:32 IST