Saturday, February 18, 2017

Naga MP Neiphiu Rio set to go back as Chief Minister: But a 'Rising Star' could not strike good rapport in Lutyens'

Having served Nagaland as its chief minister for more than a decade, soft-spoken Neiphiu Rio had shifted base to Lutyens' city. But he hardly could make a difference or a mark in Delhi politics and is now set to return home! 

Politics is also an art that cannot be predicted mostly. The adage, the beginning does not know our end seems to work in perfect harmony with politics.
My first memories of Neiphiu Rio were his stint as Minister for Youth Affairs under illustrious Congress politician, S C Jamir. The students of Science College in Kohima were at strike. This was early nineties, we had joined hundreds raising slogans against the then Education Minister I K Sema, a known bete-noire of Nagaland chief minister Jamir. 
When I accompanied student leaders of All Nagaland College Students’ Union and Naga Students’ Federation for talks with the chief minister, Rio was already summoned. By then Rio had given his inputs to Jamir and the chief minister was in his best of persuasive skills and slowly the agitation fizzled out. While we were coming out, some of us overheard Jamir telling softly, “Neiphiu you did a good job”.

Rio rose in Jamir’s estimation slowly and by 1998 was made the cabinet No. 2 and given the key portfolio of Home. Some of us aware of Jamir’s style of functioning, then a ruthless task master, almost wrote political obituary for Rio suggesting in the past too Jamir has ‘ended’ careers of many Naga politicians by making them number 2 in his cabinet: I K Sema, K L Chishi, T A Ngullie and Shikiho Sema.

But in Rio, Jamir met his nemesis. By the time Jamir’s second term as chief minister unhindered 10th year in rule and a record in Nagaland came to an end in 2003, Neiphiu Rio and K Therie had ‘deserted’ Jamir camp. They floated a regional outfit NPF with other regionalists like Shurhozelie and in 2003 assembly elections humbled Jamir-led Congress.
Neiphiu Rio became chief minister. That was beginning of a new leaf in the career graph of Rio himself and also Naga politics. Rio has not looked back since then. And the ‘greater Nagaland’ debate had persisted with Rio’s crusade for it.
But in 2014, when Rio decided to plunge into central politics ‘giving up chief ministership’, certainly, many raised their eyebrows. My animal instinct reading was Rio could be trying to avoid the saturation point that comes rather easily among Naga voters. Perhaps he needs to ‘rehabilitate’ himself effectively before he is voted out or shown the doors as veteran Jamir was humbled. Politically, the ‘regional’ hat should have helped Rio especially at a juncture when the voters in India have voted out Congress and reposed faith in the leadership of Narendra Modi. 

It started well. For Rio, junior to the Late veteran parliamentarian P A Sangma by years, it was truly an honour when the NDA in its first meeting at the Central Hall of parliament provided him an opportunity to felicitate Narendra Modi on his election as NDA group leader. A man of few words and very soft spoken, Rio made his intent clear when he said, he is ready for a ‘bigger’ role in national polity to serve the northeast region and the country.
Said to be enjoying good rapport especially with the then BJP president Rajnath Singh, it is said Rio almost made it into the Modi cabinet on May 26, 2014. Apparently a former Chief Minister - Rio was offered Minister of State, Rio had declined the offer. But later Rio denied any such offer from Prime Minister Modi. Other version is Ajit Doval did not favour a man with independent mind in the cabinet. Doval wanted to control entire Naga peace talks -- often with his Mizoram prism -- something not workable in Nagaland. But these are only heresays and no way to confirm or deny these conjectures.

In the meanwhile, another interpretation was Rio was being egged to the ‘national politics’ also by National Socialist Council of Nagaland Isak-Muivah (NSCM-IM faction) to pursue strongly with the central government to make forward movement on the Naga Peace Talks. The negotiations with Naga rebels had started in 1997 during I K Gujral time but the negotiations are almost stuck there where it used to during Vajpayee regime. “The progress made under Manmohan Singh government on Naga peace talks was frustrating. They simply did not show the will. Worse , Dr Singh never bothered to visit Nagaland in last 10 years although he is an MP from Assam,” Rio had told me in an interview.
Rio and Rajnath: Good rapport

Some BJP leaders including Rajnath Singh despite their limited knowledge on northeast – seemed to concur that presence of a Naga leader in the union cabinet would also help push the talks forward. But that was not to be. 

This section of BJP leaders also hint that the ‘idea’ to Rio to move to Delhi was given by the BJP, which wants to work hard on the Look East Policy and penetrate beyond Myanmar region. There are significant numbers of Nagas in Myanmar. Modi wants to play his well known ‘out-of-box’ game ball. In fact, Modi reportedly told a meeting of closed door experts from northeast that he could bring in major reforms in the functioning of the Ministry of External Affairs itself and encourage ‘greater engagement’ with South Asian neighbours and other smaller countries.

Even otherwise, emergence of Modi regime in Delhi and preceded by change of governments in Pakistan and Nepal, democracy taking strong roots in Myanmar and Sheikh Hasina returning to power in Bangladesh, in diplomatic parlance we already see ‘winds of change’ blowing across Asia. Today, there is a growing realization that South East Asia actually begins with North East India and rightly so. Some babudom in PMO or people around him might have wasted few years. 

File snap: Protagonists PM, Guv, TR Zeliang, Rio
Success, students of geo-strategies often say, is never an orphan. Many vie for the credit of having fathered it. In terms of north east India, I have always lamented that the guns and mistrust have often won. 

The possible change of guards in Nagaland will happen on the backdrop of protests over women quota. History again gives an opportunity to the Modi Sarkar to make a difference. And yes, Neiphiu Rio, a tough political nut that he is, can play a part in it.


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