Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio seems all geared up for a ‘bigger role’. Rio, who is contesting the state’s lone seat these Lok Sabha polls, has had a steady rise in a political career spanning 40 years. Time, he feels, is right to enter the national scene.
Both his supporters and detractors say that Rio’s political strategy has been almost flawless. “The timing is perfect. He has been looking for a role in national politics for some time now. And with P A Sangma’s position becoming weak in the region, especially after the debacle in the Meghalaya assembly elections, Rio feels that there is a vacuum which only he can fill. Rio now wants to replace Sangma as the face of the Northeast on a national platform,” says a senior Naga People’s Front leader.
Rio boasts of support not only from his party but also from MLAs and leaders of other parties in the state. Benjamin Angami, 47, a voter in Kohima, says this election is not about state issues. “We have felt sidelined for years. What we need now is right representation in Delhi; someone who can make us heard there. And there is no taller leader in Nagaland than Rio. He is the only one who can do this. So everyone will vote for him,’’ he says.
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Apart from sporadic rallies in Kohima and Dimpaur, Rio has barely visited the districts. A confident Rio is instead campaigning for party candidates in other states and making himself more visible in the rest of the Northeast. Over the past two weeks, Rio has held rallies and meetings in Mizoram and Manipur. He has also sent his former chief secretary Lalthara to campaign for him in Kuki areas. Lalthara is a Mizo, considered the mother tribe of the Kukis, and Kukis and Nagas are known to be rivals. Speaking to The Indian Express Lalthara said, “I have come to Churachandpur with Rio’s message. He wants everyone to know that he is not a representative of the Naga people alone but a representative of all Northeast tribes.”
Rio says he has been overwhelmed by the support he has received. “Without my meeting them, they are giving me their support; MLAs of other parties and independents also support me. Some people say I should not go to the Centre but remain here. Others say that I should play a bigger role. I no longer want to swim in a swimming pool but in an ocean,’’ he says.
His victory seems inevitable and insiders in his Naga People’s Front say that Rio is likely to get a cabinet berth at the Centre.
However, Rio’s detractors question his secular credentials. Says Congress candidate K V Pusa, “How can we tribal Christians align with communal forces led by Narendra Modi?”
Nagaland Pradesh Congress Committee president S I Jamir accuses Rio of being an opportunist and the NPF of winning elections with money and muscle power. “Naga people realise that the NPF has no future. They had emerged as a regional party to represent the Naga people. But they have now tied up with the BJP, a communal party. The NPF is trying to step outside its regional framework,” says Jamir.
Jamir says Narendra Modi is not acceptable to the people of Nagaland. “We had accepted Vajpayee because of his moderate outlook. But Modi is a hardliner, and we belong to a minority religion,” says Jamir.
Apart from corruption in the Rio government, the Congress is using this minority issue as its one trump card. Congress candidate and former cabinet minister during the Congress government K V Pusa says he is fighting on a three-pronged plank of peace, prosperity and secularism.