Kohima: Of the four major political parties that are battling it out in Nagaland election on 27 February, Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio has not been a member of only one of them — the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
He is among the founders of two of the four parties — the National Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) and the Naga People’s Front (NPF). Rio is also the longest-serving chief minister of the Northeast state. His face is most prominent on the hoardings, comparable only to those of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP chief J.P. Nadda.
Rio has never been in the BJP, but any party that he has led has almost continuously been in alliance with it since 2003.
Rio’s name evokes instant veneration in a state that seems unusually indifferent to the upcoming election. Talk about the 72-year-old Rio, and as if on cue, people talk about the “development work” he has done in the state.
Even the issue of unemployment — Nagaland has the highest rate in the country — which crops up inevitably in conversations, and corruption accusation levelled by the detractors, fail to dull his sheen.
In Kohima, Latinho (she uses one name) who is from Northern Angami-II, the constituency Rio has represented in the assembly since 1989 (with a brief break when he went to Parliament) said: “He has done a lot of development work for us. We belong to different villages, but fall in the same constituency. I will vote for him.”
“He is good for us…I do not have a job currently, but many of my friends do. It is not easy to get a job here. I will also look for one after the elections,” she told ThePrint, after a little prodding.
Rio has been one of the pivots of Nagaland politics for several decades now. He founded the NDPP and the NPF over a gap of 15 years.
He was first sworn in as the chief minister in 2003 as head of a Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN) government that had the NPF, the BJP and several Naga regional outfits. Since then, he has led the state, barring a stint in the 16th Lok Sabha between 2014 and 2018.
“In 2014, when he was on his second term as chief minister, he vacated because he wanted to go to Delhi. He went to Delhi and T. R. Zeliang became the chief minister. But ahead of the 2018 elections, he formed his own party. Yet, he came asking for an MLA ticket from us… he has many resorts, hotels, and schools. But I guess power got to his head. That is why he can switch parties so easily and become chief minister,” NPF press secretary Atou Liezietsu says.
Rio founded the NPF in 2002 and splintered it to form the NDPP along with a group of disgruntled elements in 2017. In 2018, he took an oath as the chief minister leading a BJP-NDPP coalition.
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Northern Angami-II: Rio’s constituency
A short and dusty drive from Kohima town, past the newly built multi-storey NDPP office that is largely deserted, one of the many movies of ‘The Mummy’ franchise is playing on TV and a number of people are assembled around a card table on the first floor.
Nothing about Northern Angami-II makes it stand out as a VIP constituency for a few decades. At the NDPP office, one of the men around the card table says without much emotion: “This is Northern Angami-II. This is the CM’s constituency. Where do you want to go?”
As ThePrint went further up, there were signs everywhere of the ongoing construction work, which is perhaps one of the contributing factors to the broken roads. But the roads didn’t seem to bother Kevisetuo (goes by one name), a peon at a government college in Kohima.
Kevisetuo was eager to talk about Rio and all the “development” work. “There is a lot of development around here. I have a good life. My office hours are from 9am to 3-3.30pm and I earn Rs 40,000. I have my own house, some farmland. Life is good. Rio is a good man,” he says.
Rio’s ancestral village Tuophema has been developed as a model village to attract tourism.
Though, not everybody shares his enthusiasm.
Buckets lined up to collect water from roadside taps remain a common sight and life, in general, has not changed much, concedes Mineh Senyo, a businesswoman and a mother of two. “See he (Rio) has done good work all around, but he cannot really make my life better. I cannot reach him. At best, I will be able to reach his personal assistant.”
Senyo, a resident of Merima who has been trying for a government job as a teacher, says, “In 2019, I had applied and none of the 11 people who made it to the final stages were selected. There is too much back door entry. This year again I applied and failed. Again, back door.”
There is little rancour about the “back door”. She has accepted it as a way of life.
“Me and my husband took a loan for this shop to buy all these freezers, etc. Once we repay it, maybe life will be easier, and I will stop hankering after a government job. But for Nagas, a government job means a lot,” Senyo says apologetically.
A church official said the perception about Rio’s performance does not matter much. “In many villages, the village headman goes and casts votes for the entire hamlet, sometimes the head of the family votes for his entire family. It is a different system here in Nagaland,” he told ThePrint.
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On Tuesday, as he was addressing a gathering at Dipuhar in Dimapur, Congress leader Ajoy Kumar, talking about corruption, told the crowd, “Nagaland is the only state that has no medical college. The money that should have been used to build roads, medical colleges and high court is being used to build resorts, like the one right there. Whose resort is it?” The crowd replied: “Neiphiu Rio”. Kumar then corrected himself and said, “Sorry not one, but three resorts.”
Branches of the Niathu resort are all around Kohima and Dimapur. Rio has declared his ownership of the resort chain in his election affidavits as well. His declared personal wealth is over Rs 9.80 crore, and along with his wife, it is over Rs 15 crore.
Rio lists his own profession as an MLA and agriculturist and his wife Kaisa Rio as an agriculturist and a floriculturist. Last year, several associates of Rio were called in for questioning by the Enforcement Directorate in connection with the irregularities associated with a proposed building for the Nagaland High Court. Both the NDPP and the Chief Minister’s Office have denied reports that Rio faced ED questioning.
Among the youth in Nagaland, there seem to be occasional voices of disenchantment with Rio.
Kika Chishi, a banker who had taken a half day off from work on Wednesday to attend Congress leader Shashi Tharoor’s packed Town Hall meeting at the Congress office, said: “There is no opposition in Nagaland. There needs to be an opposing voice. And there is too much corruption. That needs to change. And it is time that Neiphiu Rio goes. No matter who comes, he should go.”
(Edited by Richa Mishra)
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