Relaxed after a gruelling six-state election tour in the Northeast, this chief minister of a single-MP state is all smiles and has no qualms in saying which side he is on.
“Narendra Modi has proven himself, Rahul Gandhi has not,” Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio says without hesitation. Rio heads the North East Regional Political Forum a ragtag alliance of small forces but with loyal vote banks. Former Lok Sabha Speaker Purno Sangma is another titan who is part of this alliance.
As the only other serving chief minister contesting for the Lok Sabha besides Modi — Rio is also a three-time chief minister — he seemed to have connected with Modi after meeting him on March 13.
“Modi has proven himself and I have nothing to add — the country is in the mood,” Rio told this correspondent as he wound up the campaign for regional parties like the AGP in Assam and for a consensus candidate of regional parties in Mizoram.
So what about Rahul Gandhi, after all Rio’s party had supported the UPA twice?
Rio dismissed Rahul’s leadership, but not without adding an honorific to the Congress leader’s name.
“I am not too happy to comment on Rahulji. He has been struggling for too long and is not producing results,” said Rio, who was with the Congress for long and learned his ropes in politics under former chief minister S.C. Jamir.
Rio set his eyes on Parliament last year, though not for the first time — he had requested Jamir once.
He may play with his seven grandchildren during off hours but ambition has only swelled with age as he is looking for a larger role as a regional leader.
“The Assam-Nagaland dispute or other disputes have to be resolved. We have to coexist,” he says.
The Northeast has not been fairly represented in the council of ministers at the Centre. Rio said Paban Singh Ghatowar was simply a minister of state while Bijoy Krishna Handique was dropped as a minister. “When we demand, it looks bad, but if we are recognised then we will be equal partners in building the nation,” he said.
Asked if better representation was possible with the advent of a third front, Rio appeared clear. “I doubt if there will be one,” he said.
So how can Modi help? After all he is only the chief minister of another more developed state on the western frontier miles away in knowledge and politics of the Northeast.
Rio thinks Modi can do to the Northeast what James Cook’s expedition did for Australia.
“Countries like Australia became developed economies after European migration with use of mind and technology while older civilisations like India and Egypt remained underdeveloped. You talk of inclusive growth, if you want to wait for everyone you will never grow,” he said. “It is the industrialists who built the US, created jobs and brought the sense of competition,” he added, opening up the first time to speak beyond his pet subject of Naga political issue.
But then, anger against the Congress overtakes long-term concerns.
“We had a 26 per cent unexplained budget cut this year while during Vajpayeeji’s time he had given us Rs 1,065 crore towards job creation,” said Rio, revealing how Vajpayee’s goodwill in the Northeast is helping Modi. In 2003, Vajpayee, as the Prime Minister, travelled a back-breaking 74km by road from Dimapur to Kohima. “I had told him this is our best road and he had laughed and laughed,” said Rio.
What is developing is no laughing matter for the Congress though.
Rio now heads a regional force. The Prafulla Kumar Mahanta-led AGP is a partner and Rio went the extra mile to campaign for them, flying at his expense to Majuli and five other locations in Assam alone.
He also travelled to Shillong to campaign for Paul Lyngdoh and to Aizawl and in Outer Manipur constituency where he hopes to spring a surprise on old adversary and Manipur chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh.
In Arunachal Pradesh, that also has Assembly elections on April 9, Rio has fielded several Naga People’s Front (NPF) candidates in the eastern districts.
“We found a lot of takers for Nagamese as it is easily understood in Assam as well as in Nagaland. May be Nagamese will become a thread to join the many people in the Northeast,” said Rio’s aide Abu Metha.