Assembly Elections: Nagaland

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Print edition : March 02, 2018

BJP president Amit Shah with Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and Nagaland Chief Minister T.R. Zeliang at the second conclave of the North East Democratic Alliance in New Delhi on September 5, 2017. Photo: PTI

Naga rebel leader and general secretary of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), Thuingaleng Muivah, speaking on the occasion of the 69th Naga Independence Day on August 14, 2015, at the outfit’s headquarters at Hebron camp in Nagaland. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Shurhozelie Liezietsu, former Nagaland Chief Minister. Photo: PTI

Nagaland is poised for a fight between the NPF and the NDPP-BJP as the political parties go back on their decision to boycott elections until a solution to the Naga issue was found.

POLITICAL parties in Nagaland have settled for “election before solution” over “solution before election” and decided to contest the February 27 Assembly elections, thereby putting at rest speculation about a constitutional crisis in the north-eastern State. However, uncertainty over the outcome of the ongoing peace talks between the Naga rebel groups and the Government of India continues. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), taking the lead in settling for “election before solution”, indicated that the more than two-decades-old Naga peace process was likely to drag on for some more time.

Eleven political parties, including the ruling Naga People’s Front (NPF), the BJP, the newly formed Nationalist Democratic People’s Party (NDPP) and the Congress, signed a joint declaration on January 29 that they would not issue the party ticket or file nominations to the Assembly elections until an early resolution to the vexed “Naga political issue” was found and the ongoing peace talks concluded. The declaration was signed at a meeting convened by the Core Committee of Naga Tribal Hohos and Civil Organisations (CCNTHCO) in Kohima.

However, the BJP was the first to break out of the declaration. The party issued a statement that it had not authorised its leaders to attend the meeting or sign any declaration. It suspended two leaders for signing the declaration without being authorised to do so. The ruling NPF and other parties subsequently announced that they were fully prepared to contest the elections and would file nominations if other parties participated in the election process.

A day before the last date for filing of nominations, the CCNTHCO dissolved itself as nominations began to be filed “violating the joint declaration”. It, however, issued a statement that the January 29 declaration “still stands and political parties or candidates violating this declaration shall still be accused by history of putting self before the Naga cause”.

Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju appealed to the political and civil society groups of Nagaland to participate in the Assembly elections and withdraw the declaration. An official release issued by the Press Information Bureau on February 1 quoted the Minister as saying: “The Union government is sensitive to the popular sentiment of the Naga people and is committed to an early solution to their issue.” In his message, he assured the people of Nagaland that the government would implement the solution as soon as it was reached. The CCNTHCO blamed the BJP for being the first to violate the declaration. It stated that “it is for the Naga people to judge who threw the spanner in the works”.

The decision of the parties to disregard the boycott call was understood to have been influenced by a past in which the Congress swept the elections in 1998 by winning 53 seats when other parties heeded the boycott call given by the Naga Hoho and some non-governmental organisations. The Election Commission of India derecognised the Nagaland People’s Council (NPC) and froze its poll symbol for boycotting the elections. At its ninth general council held in Kohima on October 18, 2002, the NPC changed its name to Nagaland People’s Front. It later called itself the Naga People’s Front in order to contest elections in other States in the region.

The Central government signed a “Framework Agreement” with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) in 2015 after 80 rounds of talks since the signing of the ceasefire agreement in 1997. With neither party lifting the veil of secrecy over the “Framework Agreement”, there is suspicion and apprehension over the territorial integrity of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh among the people of these States. This is grounded in the fact that the NSCN(I-M)’s map of “Nagalim” includes Nagaland and some areas in the neighbouring States and Myanmar. The rebel group has been insisting that any solution to the problem should be applicable in the entire “Nagalim”.

In all, 253 nominations were filed for elections to the 60-member Assembly, when nominations closed on February 7.

In the 2013 elections, the NPF won 38 seats, the Congress eight, the Nationalist Congress Party four, the BJP one, independents eight and the Janata Dal (United) one. The NPF polled 47.04 per cent of the votes, the Congress 24.89 per cent, the BJP 1.75 per cent, the NCP 6.05 per cent, the JD(U) 1.65 per cent and independents 17.75 per cent.

Inner-party rivalry and dissidence marked the ruling NPF in the past five years, resulting in change of guard twice. In 2008, the NPF won 26 seats and formed a coalition government with the support of the BJP, the JD(U) and independents.

The NSCN(I-M) remains firm in its stand that “imposed election is not acceptable to the Naga people”. In a statement, the rebel group said: “The NSCN shall uphold the historical and political rights of the Nagas and sincerely endeavour to negotiate an honourable political settlement based on unique history and situation of the Nagas” and the Framework Agreement. “We will not betray the responsibility and trust reposed on us by God and the Naga people. We reiterate our stand that imposed election is not acceptable to the Naga people,” the statement added.

In a speech at a meeting of the joint council held at the rebel group’s central headquarters at Hebron on January 25, the convener of the steering committee of the NSCN(I-M) insisted that “any kind of solution that betrays the future of Nagas is no solution. We cannot place our future to be decided by others. We must decide our future by ourselves and that is where NSCN stands. We will cling to the ‘Framework Agreement’ and stand by that in all weathers. We will keep going with it even if there are oppositions. We will keep looking at the creator of kingdoms with unwavering faith. Our survival strategy is in our firm stand and the power of prayer. What do we mean by solution, not election? Election is anti-thesis of solution. Solution is about the future of Nagas whereas election is about the Indian Constitution; solution is about the unique history, culture and identity of Nagas whereas election is about India; solution is about the land of Nagas whereas election means it is about Indian territory; solution is about the principle of self-reliance whereas election is about dependence on others; solution means Naga people will be the epicentre of Naga politics whereas election means Delhi will be the high command of Naga politics.”

The NSCN(I-M) leader said: “After prolonged negotiations, the historic Framework Agreement was officially signed between the Government of India and the NSCN as two entities on August 3, 2015, which recognises the sovereign right of Nagas, the unique history and identity of Nagas and land of Nagas. Taking the security of India and the political and historical rights of Nagas into account, the two parties officially agreed that India and Nagas will co-exist as two entities and share sovereign power between the two entities.” The assertion of the rebel group on “sovereign rights of Nagas” and the claim about its recognition in the “Framework Agreement” is bound to fuel more apprehension in the neighbouring States. The BJP and the Central government will be under pressure to make the contents of the agreement public.

Seat-sharing formula

Amid these high-voltage political developments, the BJP dumped its 15-year-old ally, the NPF, and signed a pre-election alliance with the newly formed NDPP led by Neiphiu Rio, the former Chief Minister and lone Member of Parliament from the State.

The former Chief Minister quit the NPF in January and joined the NDPP. The two parties reached a seat-sharing arrangement which gave 40 seats to the NDPP and 20 to the BJP. The NDPP-BJP alliance surprised political circles as the Central Executive Council of the NPF had reversed its July 17, 2017, decision to snap its ties with the BJP and decided to work out a seat-sharing formula for the Assembly elections. The change in the political equation is attributed to the fact that the BJP was looking for a larger role in running the government in Nagaland but the NPF was not willing to concede space to the saffron party as it was apprehensive of the erosion of its support base.

The Congress, looking for an opportunity to regain its foothold in Nagaland politics, toyed with the idea of reaching out to the NPF for an informal understanding in some seats if the ruling party severed its ties with the BJP.

The Congress came out with a list of 23 candidates which indicated that like the BJP the party was desperate to explore all opportunities to play the role of a kingmaker. However, this is still in the stage of ifs and buts.

The State is poised for a fierce battle between the NPF and the NDPP-BJP combine. The NPF, however, continues to be a constituent of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance at the Centre and the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) in the region. This leaves the field open for any post-election equation in the event of a fractured verdict. All eyes are on the February 27 elections and a realignment of political forces in the State, which will be critical in shaping the future course of the Naga peace process.

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