In an interview at the Ideas Exchange hosted by the Indian Express in March last year, then Chief Minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi, was asked a question – What is it about the Northeast that makes it so important to the BJP?
To that he said – “They want it all. They want to show that they are an all-India party.”
Indeed, the BJP wants it all! And it certainly wants all of the North East for obvious reasons – the BJP believes that for securing national integration, the border regions are most critical. For the fulfillment of the ideological vision of Akhand Bharat, the Northeast is crucial. For the nation to be culturally and nationally integrated in spirit and not just geography, the Northeast is important. For the BJP, the Northeast is not a peripheral state but the heart of India.
While the BJP had long held this clear political articulation for the North East, it did not had the political mandate to implement its vision on the ground. And the moment an opportunity has presented itself, the BJP has gone for the kill. In this pursuit for political wrestling of power, the BJP leadership led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is mindful of keeping its ideology at the core, which for the BJP is “Nation First”.
Recently, Shekhar Gupta, accused the BJP of fomenting trouble and destablising the polity of a “delicate” state like Nagaland at a time when the Doklam crisis is looming large in the neighbouring region. He says “the ongoing crisis [in the Northeast] is a direct result of the BJP’s relentless ambition to finally conquer the region… its RSS commandos and its special forces should be called back to the barracks, for now. The party’s conquest of the Northeast can be resumed later.”
The premise on which Gupta makes the argument seems to erroneously connect regional and international politics. When some national media icons led by the likes of Gupta were busy lamenting the saffron stamp on India’s biggest constitutional canvas – the Presidential and Vice-Presidential posts -the BJP, led by its North East In-Charge, Ram Madhav-ji, was closely observing and interpreting the political changes in the Northeastern state of Nagaland. It seems Gupta himself missed several facts about the recent political events in Nagaland before drawing his hyperbolic conclusions in his article.
So what exactly happened in Nagaland?
Of late, Nagaland politics have been dominated by two leaders, Neiphiu Rio and TR Zeliang, both of them ex Chief Ministers – Rio having served from 2003 till 2014 while Zeliang served from 2014-17. Both of them have been in competing camps for quite some time. Rio quit as the Chief Minister in May 2014 to contest the Lok Sabha elections in the hope of winning and getting a ministerial berth at the centre. That proved to be excessive wishful thinking. Rio did win the lone Lok Sabha seat from Nagaland, but couldn’t secure a ministerial berth for himself. Meanwhile, Zeliang ascended to Chief Minister and headed the post-Rio NPF regime in the state. Under his leadership, all 59 MLAs of Nagaland formed a united front called the Democratic Alliance for Nagaland (DAN). Zeliang ran an opposition-free government for around three years.
Both Zeliang and Rio are generally seen to be closer to Delhi and open to progressive ideas. One such idea that Zeliang wanted to test out was the introduction of one-third reservation for women in local body elections in early 2017. Well, that move went horribly wrong. The social backlash he faced forced him to step down from the top job in the state. Shurhozelie Liezietsu, the President of Naga People’s Front and a politician on the verge of retirement, took advantage of the warring camps within the NPF and positioned himself as the next probable Chief Minister. Shurhozelie was also one of the founding members of NPF and the Chairman of Democratic Alliance for Nagaland (DAN) – an alliance of NPF and BJP (along with a few regional parties and independent MLAs) that has stood the test of time ever since 2003.
Shurhozelie got the support of Zeliang and became the 11th Chief Minister of Nagaland. Zeliang’s support, however, came with a condition – that Shurhozelie, who was not an MLA in the 12th Legislative Assembly, would remain at the helm for only six months during which he would not seek election to the Assembly and would henceforth have to step down.
This meant the assumption that social unrest would likely subside within these six months and create a situation conducive for Zeliang to make a comeback. The core premise of this arrangement was that Zeliang enjoyed the support of a majority of MLAs and was the rightful claimant to the post of Chief Minister.
Well, the lure of power overcame Shurhozelie Liezietsu and he asked his son Khriehu Liezietsu to resign as an MLA and pave the way for his father to contest the election from the North Angami-1 Assembly seat. If Shurhozelie fought and won the election, he would have a chance to continue as the Chief Minister.
Sensing imminent betrayal, Zeliang blew the bugle and announced an all-out war against Chief Minister Shurhozelie. He had the signed support letters of 36 NPF MLAs and therefore presented Governor PB Acharya with his claim to form the government around July 8.
Looking at the numbers, Governor Acharya asked Shurhozelie to prove his majority on the floor of the house. The situation got complicated since Shurhozelie, being the President of NPF along with being the Chief Minister, had unassailing powers to suspend or expel any or all of the dissidents from the party. In several maneuvers and counter maneuvers, Chief Minister Shurhozelie expelled Zeliang from the NPF party and suspended 11 MLAs for going against the party line.
Within such grave political uncertainties, the BJP decided to intervene – purely constructively. The BJP, led by its leaders, Ram Madhav-ji and Himanta Biswa Sharma, explored options for reconciliation between the two groups. In order to explore an amicable solution, the party reached out to several intermediaries to help re-establish the united and stable political front in an otherwise turbulent state. After these genuine efforts from the BJP leaders failed, the matter was referred to Guwahati High Court’s Kohima bench and later to a division bench in Guwahati. Both the benches quashed the petition, questioning the actions of the Governor, and asked Shurhozelie to prove his majority on the floor of the House.
Meanwhile, Rio’s camp also threw its weight behind Zeliang. With the two most prominent Nagaland leaders on one side, it was simply realpolitik for the BJP to support the Zeliang-led faction. Any political party eyeing a political stake would in all prudence have done this.
On the day of the floor test, July 18, Chief Minister Liezietsu and 11 legislators of Naga People’s Front (NPF) who are on his side, failed to turn up in the Assembly. 47 other legislators, including four BJP and seven Independents, were present, to oppose the confidence motion on the floor. In view of the absence of the Chief Minister, Speaker Imtiwapang announced the adjournment of the House.
The Speaker submitted his report to the Governor stating that the Liezietsu-led government does not enjoy the confidence of the House. A day later, on the 19th of July, Zeliang was sworn in as Chief Minister. This is how a high-octane political drama came to an end.
In light of the above, how does the BJP stand accused of creating instability in the state? On the contrary, BJP has had a fantastic working relationship with Shurhozelie as the Chairman of DAN for the past several years and as the Chief Minister for past few months. and the dutiful actions of a well-meaning Governor were questioned for his RSS credentials, only to be later vindicated by the courts. Perhaps, Gupta should have read the recent turn of events.
BJP, being a mature political party with its government in five out of eight Northeastern states, understands the sensitivity of the politics of the region. It respects the fragility in the cultural and political worldview of the Northeast and therefore enjoys amicable relationship with many local regional parties. In order to strengthen itself and the local politics of the region, BJP collaborates with many of these regional parties in alliances. This coexistence is not a sign of instability but of deep mutual trust and understanding, of forging common bridges to achieve common objectives.
The primary premise of being and sustaining in politics is the pursuit of power. It is about gaining legitimate power, authority, to be able to do things one wants. The BJP will fight the next assembly elections not just in Nagaland but in Tripura and Meghalaya as well. It will fight with all its force and will fight to win. The BJP indeed wants it all. And it is also clear that these political victories will never compromise on BJP’s core ideological idea of Nation First.