New era Naga political hunting: Contest between ‘status quo’ and ‘transition’

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What ails Nagaland today? Why do the peace talks appear to be on the verge of getting derailed?

Essentially, there is a possibility of a contest between ‘status quo’ and ‘transition’.

It is anybody’s guess in Nagaland that a final peace accord would render a set of existing politicians jobless or irrelevant. Of course, a new set of players would come in and therein lies the beauty of any peace pact related to insurgency-afflicted states.

This was the case in Mizoram. Incumbent Chief Minister Zoramthanga was a staunch lieutenant of late rebel leader Laldenga and is today a proud ‘citizen of India’, and also proud of the public office he holds.

As a result, Mizoram is continuing its developmental journey amid other challenges of course. Insurgency is a matter of the past there.

Nagas are a proud community. In the past, many Naga leaders and observers have taken offence to trying to judge the ‘Naga freedom movement’ or insurgency with the Mizoram prism.

Swaraj Kaushal faced this problem right from the beginning when he was named as negotiator by the Atal Vajpayee government. Kaushal was a personal friend of late Mizo rebel leader Laldenga and later became the state’s Governor too.

In Nagaland, things are obviously always more complex if not messy. But one thing was certain that the peace accord would possibly bring in a new set of movers and shakers replacing the old and some existing ones.

So there was always a chance of a contest between ‘status quo’ and ‘transition’. The peace accord was the first step to change and obviously it did not suit a few.

Did the BJP central leadership not realise this?

When ‘Election for Solution’ was promised in 2018, the BJP central leadership trusted all its elected legislators, state ministers and coalition partner NDPP. It believed that everyone would work sincerely to bring all stakeholders on the table and convince them about the futility of confrontation.

Almost a free hand was given to the state government and state politicians for the initial two years.

At one point, the BJP central leadership sensed a ‘trouble area’ in Ram Madhav and so when J.P. Nadda became the new party President, Madhav no longer found a berth as general secretary in-charge of Northeast.

Between 2014 and till his exit, Ram Madhav too almost enjoyed a free hand. And this irrespective of media speculation that the Narendra Modi government is too much centralised.

From then Governor R.N. Ravi, it was claimed that talks were over by October 31, 2019. He made the statement on the floor of the Assembly and thus it cannot be disowned by the NDPP-BJP regime.

The elected Nagaland legislators, irrespective of party affiliations, are also aware that the Governor’s speech in state legislatures are endorsed by the cabinet decision.

So they know that the state government and the Chief Minister cannot deny or disown the statement. Thus, the issue was raised in the April 9 meeting at Kohima.

Another regional party — NPF, a late comer in the game — is now also supporting the dispensation led by Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio.

So far, the NPF has not added much to the merit of the case. In fact, many NDPP leaders, including its president Chingwang Konyak, told party colleagues that the NPF was almost given a second lease of life by Rio and his advisors.

On top of that, NPF wants to have the best of both worlds. It made a gesture for a merger with NDPP but gave it up mid-way, at least for the time being, after BJP recorded landslide victories in Uttar Pradesh and Manipur.

Its party chief Shurhozelie wanted to oppose the candidature of woman BJP leader Phangnon Konyak to the Rajya Sabha, but developed cold feet as he could not muster enough number of MLAs. Had any NDPP stalwart supported Shurhozelie’s move or not remains a mystery till now.

From New Delhi’s point of view, may be ‘trust’ was reposed more on the state leadership and it was assumed that even the tough negotiators and the ‘uncompromising’ NSCN (IM) would be also ‘convinced’.

But nothing much happened except a few rounds of meetings here and there.

A section of BJP leaders are unhappy over the manner things have been handled since 2019 when almost everything was agreed for signing of a peace pact. Of course, Manipur Chief Minister N. Biren Singh with a delegation of Meitei leaders had convinced Amit Shah that no territorial integrity of Manipur will be impacted due to the Naga peace accord.

Last year, even Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma was roped in to meet the Naga militant leaders. But now in retrospect, the Centre thinks enough time was given to the state government and state political leaders.

By deputing Sarma, did the concerned players try to raise some questions on the sanctity of the August 3, 2015 Framework Agreement and Narendra Modi’s own statement ?

Therefore, in the April 12 meeting with Amit Shah, the Naga leaders, including CM Rio and Deputy CM Y. Patton (of BJP), were told, “Bring everyone on board and there will be an announcement of peace pact.”

Some eyebrows have been raised.

Does it reflect some sort of no confidence in the state leadership? Will the ceasefire end abruptly and will Nagaland re-enter the unfortunate phase of violence?

The developments related to the Naga peace talks are now being monitored regularly at the PMO level.

Naga leaders were also reportedly advised to meet the Prime Minister. The high-profile meeting did take place, and CM Rio tweeted to say there were “fruitful deliberations”.

Things are truly at a critical stage in more ways than one.

Nagaland legislators are already sensing a “tougher situation” than was presumed by “resourceful parties and politicians”.

They have lately mounted pressure on Chief Minister Rio to deliver a peace pact before the 2023 elections.

The issues related to ED summons to five individuals – said to be close to Rio – are curious. They do not augur well at all for those who are keen to see things move smoothly and effectively towards the desired results.

In the meantime, a question has surfaced: Did BJP’s ‘own coalition government’ fail the Central leadership?

(Nirendra Dev is a New Delhi-based journalist and author of ‘The Talking Guns: North East India’ and ‘Modi to Moditva: An Uncensored Truth’. The views expressed are personal)

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