A hung Assembly in Nagaland has the BJP firmly in the driver’s seat. As counting day threw up a photo-finish Saturday with neither the Naga People’s Front (NPF) nor the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) crossing the half way point, the BJP inched closer to forming the government with its alliance partner while claiming support from a JD(U) MLA and an independent.
Late on Saturday night, BJP leaders indicated they would form the government in the next few days with NDPP chief Neiphiu Rio as Chief Minister. The BJP tally in Nagaland surged from just one seat in 2013 to 12 after counting on Saturday. Its vote share increased from 1.75 per cent to 14.4 per cent.
The Congress failed to win a single seat and its vote share fell from around 15 per cent in 2013 to just above 2 per cent in 2018.
Read | How BJP made Naga inroads
The NPF emerged the single largest party with 26 seats, the NDPP has 17, BJP 12, National People’s Party (NPP) 2, JD(U) 1, and one independent — 37-year-old Tongpang Ozukum who defeated the working president of the NDPP and former Chief Secretary Alemtamshi Jamir.
The result of the Tenning constituency, where NPF was declared the winner, according to Nagaland Chief Electoral Officer “was forwarded to ECI” and has not been declared yet.
On March 1, the NPP and the JD(U) had sent letters of support favouring Chief Minister and NPF chief TR Zielang to Governor PB Acharya. This left the NPF allies with 29 seats the same as the BJP-NDPP combine.
But typical to Nagaland and the shifting sands of its politics, much changed by Saturday night when the JD(U,) shifted loyalties to the BJP-NDPP alliance. In its statement of support, JD(U) Nagaland said, “In the interest of the party this is to convey that the JD(U) has decided to support the BJP in formation of a stable government of Nagaland. This decision is taken after a serious consideration of the current verdict . And also to safeguard the interest of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in Delhi.”
In his personal letter of support, JD(U) candidate and MLA Kaito Aye from Satakha assembly constituency said, “I submit herewith my letter of support to the BJP-NDPP alliance and the leadership of Mr Neiphiu Rio.”
Earlier in the evening, independent MLA Tongpang Ozukum had also signed over a letter of support, worded identically. Both letters were handed over to the NDPP-BJP, in the presence of BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav, who arrived in Dimapur from Tripura Saturday afternoon, and met Aye, Chief Ministerial face Rio and the 12 BJP MLAs.
The inclusion of the two candidates in the alliance has taken the BJP-NDPP past the halfway mark at 31, with Rio now expected to the be state’s next Chief Minister in what will be his fourth tenure. His first three terms were ironically with the NPF that he so bitterly opposed.
“NDPP-BJP alliance has secured near simple majority in Nagaland. We will stake claim to form government in the next couple of days,” Madhav claimed. Rio outlined his priorities. “First is the Naga Political issue. Second is the development aspect, infrastructure and railways,” he said.
Senior BJP leaders also said it was possible the NPP would also jump ship to the Rio-led alliance. “Despite the letters of support that they gave to the Governor, there was no formal seat-sharing agreement with the JD(U) and the NPP of the NPF. The JD(U) is a national ally and is in government with the BJP in Bihar. The NPP wants to ally with the BJP in Meghalaya. So both have an interest to ally here,” a senior BJP leader said.
There is even the possibility of the NPF and BJP forming government together. For the past few months, while NPF president Shurozelie Lizietsu had seemed averse to allying with the BJP, Chief Minister Zeliang had constantly kept the door open to an alliance. On Saturday, he repeatedly said the BJP was still part of the NPF government, with two BJP ministers in the present Nagaland cabinet.
Kiren Rijiju, BJP in charge for Nagaland said on Saturday morning, “The BJP will form the government in Nagaland with the help of other parties. The NPF has already passed a resolution on alliance with the BJP…The BJP has been working with the agenda of development and will continue to do so in Nagaland too,” he said.
A senior NPF leader also said that while the party initially sought to reach out to the BJP, arguing that with its numbers it could offer a more stable government, hopes faded by evening when Rio met Madhav with the independent and JD(U) candidates handing over letters of support.
“We had hoped for a meeting on Sunday but that seems pointless now. We have to now concentrate on keeping our flock together, and making sure our NPF candidates don’t cross over to the NDPP BJP,” a senior NPF leader said.
In October last year, massive infighting had broken out within the NPF, largely seen as a clash between Rio and Chief Minister Zeliang, causing the formation of the NDPP. While Rio remained in the party for a few months, despite being considered as the engineer of the split, he then formally joined the NDPP in January, with the party declaring that he would lead the NDPP’s charge in the election.
Even as the BJP continued in the NPF government, the lack of a seat sharing agreement with the NPF resulted in them allying with the NDPP, in a 40-20 split.
Even as the BJP kept one foot in the NPF door, with Zeliang also hopeful of allying with BJP, the NDPP-BJP alliance launched an aggressive campaign, marked with an advertising blitz across Nagaland with the tagline “Change is Coming.” This, despite the BJP being in the Nagaland government for three terms with the NPF in what was the Democratic Alliance of Nagaland(DAN) alliance.
In rallies and speeches across the state, the BJP deplored the state of development and infrastructure, justifying themselves by saying that it was the NPF and the instability it brought that had held them back. In his only rally in Tuensanf, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said if the NDPP-BJP alliance was voted to power, two engines of development, one from the state, and one from the Centre would propel the state.
Meanwhile, despite Awan Konyak of the NDPP leading from the Aboi constituency for much of the morning, she eventually lost to her NPF opponent Eshak Konyak, meaning that Nagaland has still to elect a woman MLA to the assembly. The four others in the fray finished a distant third or fourth in their respective constituencies.