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Musical Chairs in Nagaland

Pradip Phanjoubam (phanjoubam@gmail.com) is the editor of Imphal Free Press.

The political drama has yet to end despite a proactive governor’s intervention.

Pradip Phanjoubam writes:

Nagaland Chief Minister T R Zeliang, who was sworn in on 19 July after an extraordinary string of developments, has set new norms in how to keep legislators happy. After proving majority support on the floor of the state assembly on 21 July, he appointed 11 cabinet ministers, two of whom are from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) four members. After this, he still had to please 35 more out of the 47 rebels from the ruling Naga People’s Front (NPF) who supported him. On 25 July, he inducted 26 of them as parliamentary secretaries, a cabinet rank post. The remaining nine were appointed as advisers, also of cabinet rank. As a result, all 47 rebels in an assembly of 60 who voted for Zeliang in the 21 July vote of confidence, now hold cabinet ranks.

Unfortunately for Zeliang, and quite coincidentally, the Supreme Court ruled on 26 July in a separate case that the Assam Parliamentary Secretaries (Appointment, Salaries, Allowances and Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2004, which introduced the provision for appointing parliamentary secretaries in state assemblies, is unconstitutional. This ruling is likely to have a direct impact on Zeliang’s current desperate appeasement strategy but given his innovative skills, he could find a way around this.

Zeliang’s recent journey to power has been dramatic and not without controversy. He had to step down as NPF chief minister in February following widespread violent public protests over his decision to hold elections to urban local bodies with the national norm of 33% reservation for women. The NPF had then called out veteran party man Shurhozelie Liezietsu, 81, to be the party’s consensus candidate for the chief minister’s post. Liezietsu, who was not a member of the legislative assembly (MLA) then, was scheduled to contest a by-election on 29 July for a seat vacated by his son. Instead, barely a month before the by-election came Zeliang’s blitzkrieg.

Equally controversial is the role played by Nagaland Governor P B Acharya, a former BJP secretary in charge of the North East. Zeliang was hurriedly sworn in as chief minister by Acharya on 19 July after the then chief minister, Shurhozelie Leizeitsu failed to turn up for the floor test he was asked to take. Leizeitsu argued that the dissidence within the NPF was an internal matter to be settled by the party and not the state assembly. Under normal circumstances, unless a constitutional crisis arose on account of a formal split in the ruling party, such infighting should have been left to the party’s own internal conflict resolution mechanisms to settle. Curiously, despite the change at the top and the mass cross voting against the party whip during the confidence motion of the Zeliang government, the NPF is still not regarded as having split.

Despite Zeliang’s virtual coup, Leizeitsu refused to quit. It was then that the governor stepped in to ask Leizeitsu to prove his majority on the floor of the assembly. The latter again refused and challenged the governor’s order in the Kohima bench of the Gauhati High Court arguing that this was an internal matter of the NPF. The court disagreed and dismissed Leizeitsu’s petition, ruling rather intriguingly that “the matter is left to the wisdom of the Governor to take a decision on the same after proper application of mind.” Leizeitsu, known for his quick wit, later charged the governor of having failed to properly apply his mind.

A bitter Leizeitsu also tauntingly referred to his nemesis Zeliang as the “Heraka boy,” who along with the governor was determined to bring the BJP to power in Nagaland. Zeliang belongs to the Zeliangrong group of Naga tribes, spread across Nagaland, Manipur and Assam. They were among the last to embrace Christianity and a sizeable section among them are still followers of the pre-Christian indigenous faith, Heraka, made famous by Rani Gaidinliu, a rebel religious cult figure at the time of the Indian independence struggle. Gaidinliu not only resisted the British administration, but also A Z Phizo’s Naga National Council that fought for Naga sovereignty. After independence, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru discovered her in a British jail, and taking a liking to the story of her resistance, conferred her the “Rani” title, and later the Padma Bhushan. While Gaidinliu is revered in Manipur, in Nagaland, a plan to construct a memorial in her name was vehemently opposed. Meanwhile, the BJP is believed to be working to enlist Heraka followers into its ranks.

The controversy around Zeliang’s return to power has not ended. Leizeitsu and his supporters in the NPF are now poised to sue for disqualification of the NPF MLAs who voted against the party whip. If they succeed, the rebels would be compelled to merge with another party in the assembly if they want to escape disqualification. It is still a matter of speculation, but the party they may seek to merge with is likely to be the BJP who were their partners in the recent rebellion. Such an outcome would, however, likely erode the NPF’s support base. The gainers in such an eventuality may again be the BJP.

 

 

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