The high point in Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio’s political career came on a September morning in 2002 when he quit the Congress to become the satrap of a regional party.
Over the past decade, during his two terms as chief minister, Rio has redefined politics and almost single-handedly decimated the Congress in the state. The party’s former home minister has systematically dismantled what was considered one of the most secure bastions of the Congress until 2002. So much so that in Angami headquarters and state capital Kohima, there are no takers for a Congress ticket.
Rio not only took on his mentor, the then chief minister S.C. Jamir, a veteran Congressman, but also senior leaders in the dormant regional outfit Nagaland People’s Council, which was subsequently rechristened the Nagaland People’s Front.
Once seen as Jamir’s “favourite son”, the Angami leader sprung a surprise by resigning from the Congress and joining the regional party. He was one of the few leaders who gauged the slowly building opportunity of subnationalist politics in a state witness to over five decades of militancy.
Taking on the reins of power as a relatively young politician in his fifties, Rio was clever enough to keep his flock together in a coalition. The last of the regional giants were the late Vamuzo and late Vizol.
Taking advantage of the infighting within the Congress, he has been in control since.
This time too, the odds are in his favour of being a third-time chief minister, which will be a record for a Nagaland politician. Jamir was a five-time chief minister but he could not win three terms consecutively.
Reinventing aspirational politics and coalescing rebel politics with what is known in Nagaland as “overground” politics, Rio has managed to keep the embers of subnationalism burning among Naga voters.
Unlike elsewhere in India, where development politics seems to be gaining ground, here the issue is invariably the “Naga political issue” that keeps coming up as the primary election plank.
Rio is undoubtedly a favourite with the NSCN (Isak-Muvah), which is in negotiation with the Centre. For the NSCN, a chief minister pushing an agenda of political rights beyond statehood came as a catalyst to its dialogue. In fact, the Centre has not even allowed the state to be a party to the talks. Yet Rio has successfully sold himself as a “facilitator” to the dialogue.
This week, his statement that Manipur chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh is the “biggest enemy of the Nagas” became a hot topic in Manipur where the Naga tribes are fighting for demands similar to ones made by the NSCN (I-M).
While Ibobi Singh’s supporters have reacted, saying the Nagaland chief minister could go to jail for such statements, Rio remains unfazed. He has once again found opportunity, saying he would go to jail for his people.
Last year, he checkmated the Congress by making it party to a joint legislative forum that said they wanted a solution to the Naga problem and not elections. When it was time for polls, the Congress leaders were stumped as Rio began campaigning aggressively and breaking Opposition ranks. Exploiting the Congress’s mismanagement, Rio managed to get a decades-old Congress loyalist and Konyak leader, Chinwang Konyak, to cross over.
For Rio, this comes as a huge advantage in Mon district where the demand for a Frontier Nagaland state poses a serious challenge to his party.
A possible third term for Rio as chief minister will not just be a matter of pride for his village Touphema, it will peg a landmark for his Angami tribe and beyond, perhaps among the larger Tenyimia.