Making a U-turn, Bharatiya Janata Party's Nagaland unit on Tuesday backed out of a joint declaration signed on Monday by all parties in the state to boycott the upcoming assembly polls which also led to suspension of a state party leader.
As the move by the BJP's state unit to be part of the declaration left its central leadership red-faced, Union minister Kiren Rijiju went into damage control mode, saying elections are a constitutional process and the central government is bound by the Constitution.
Rijiju, who is the minister of state for home, is also BJP's election in-charge for Nagaland.
The BJP also suspended its state executive council member Kheto Semaparty, who had signed the joint declaration.
Amid heightened political activity in Nagaland, 10 MLAs of the ruling Naga People's Front have resigned from the party and the House, an official note said on Tuesday.
The resignations were submitted on Monday.
Speaker Imtiwapang accepted the resignations and the seats were declared vacant, a note from the assembly secretariat said on Tuesday.
The MLAs said they had resigned heeding the 'wishes of the Naga people for solution to the Naga political issue before the election'.
'We have resigned in view of the resolution passed by the Nagaland Assembly on December 15 last year urging the Government of India to resolve the Naga political issue before the elections, and in support of the people's desire for solution before election,' they said.
They said an agreement was also reached between civil societies, apex tribal organisations and political parties in Nagaland yesterday to seek deferment of the elections.
The MLAs who put in their papers are Noke Wangnao, Tokheho Yeptho, Pangnyu Phom, Neikiesalie Nicky Kire, Zhaleo Rio, C M Chang, Deo Nukhu, Pohwang Konyak, Namri Nchang and Neiba Kronu.
With their resignation altogether 13 MLAs - 12 of the NPF and one independent-- have resigned from the assembly.
Out of the 13 who resigned two have joined the BJP.
Neiba Kronu told PTI that the MLAs have also submitted their resignations to NPF president Shurhozelie Liezietsu.
Asked about their joining another party, he said, "We are for the common call of the Naga people for 'solution before election', and we will decide on the party affiliation only if election is to be held."
The 10 MLAs who resigned have been seen actively participating in the official engagements of the newly formed Nationalist Democratic People’s Party, which has declared Lok Sabha MP and fromer chief minister Neiphiu Rio as its chief ministerial candidate.
Representatives of 11 political parties, including the ruling Naga People's Front, its ally BJP and the Congress on Monday signed the declaration not to contest the February 27 assembly elections, agreeing to the demand of tribal bodies and civil society groups that the protracted Naga political problem be resolved first.
The Nationalist Democratic Peoples' Party, Nagaland Congress, United Nagaland Democratic Party, Aam Admi Party, Nationalist Congress Party, Lok Janshakti Party, Janata Dal-United and National People's Party were the other parties who signed the joint declaration.
State BJP chief Visasolie Lhoungu told PTI in Kohima that he had asked Kheto to attend Monday's meeting but had not authorised him to sign the joint declaration.
"We had authorised two party leaders to attend the meeting but had also said that if there is anything regarding the elections, the party's national leaders should be consulted," he said.
"Since Kheto had signed the documents without any consultation with the central leaders, he has been put under suspension," Lhoungu said.
He, however, said the BJP favours an early settlement to the Naga political problem but the assembly election is a different issue and the state unit of the party is awaiting directions from the central leadership in this regard.
Asked if the BJP accepts the common call for 'solution not election', Lhoungu said, "The final decision on the matter will be taken only after BJP central leaders hold discussions with the core committee of Naga tribal organisations and also the Naga nationalist political groups."
The discussions will take place soon and the filing of nominations will depend on the outcome of the meeting, he said.
Rijiju, who put out a series of tweets, said the Centre attaches utmost importance to the long pending Naga issue.
'Holding of timely election is a constitutional process. The central government is bound by the Constitution,' he said.
Rijiju said the Centre fully understands the sentiments expressed by the Core Committee of the Nagaland Tribal Hohos and Civil Organisations (CCNTHCO) but 'election boycott is not the solution'.
'Let's have faith in Prime Minister Narendra Modi ji's commitment. Govt of India attaches utmost importance to the long pending Naga issue. We believe that peaceful election in Nagaland will facilitate the ongoing peace talks and strengthen our commitment,' he said.
The Core Committee has also called for a total shutdown on February 1, when filing of nomination begins.
The Naga Hoho, an apex Naga tribal body, earlier this month sought the prime minister's intervention for postponing the elections, saying the vexed issue should be resolved first.
Civil society groups in Nagaland have also launched a campaign 'Solution before Election'.
Expectations for lasting peace soared in Nagaland, which had been hit by insurgency for decades, after the Centre and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah signed a framework agreement in 2015.
The NSCN-IM has been engaged in peace talks with the interlocutor of the central government since 1997, when it announced a ceasefire agreement after a bloody insurgency movement which started in Nagaland soon after the country's independence.
During a visit to the state in November 2017, President Ram Nath Kovind had said the state was at the threshold of making history as a final agreement on the Naga political issue would soon be arrived at and lasting peace achieved.
Rijiju along with BJP national secretary in-charge of North East Ram Madhav, who were in Kohima on Monday, held discussions on pre-poll alliance as well as seat sharing for the ensuing elections, state party sources said.
The BJP's media cell convener K James Vizo confirmed that the two leaders were here to discuss the status of pre-poll alliance and also seat sharing for the elections.
Vizo said Rijiju and Madhav held meeting with Chief Minister T R Zeliang and NPF president Shurhozelie Liezietsu over pre-poll alliance and also deliberated on seat sharing.
Poll process will not be hampered: CEO
Meanwhile, State Chief Electoral Officer Abhijit Sinha said the February 27 polls will not be hampered by the joint declaration of political parties.
"There is no other way but to hold the elections," he said and expressed hope that 'nothing will be done to vitiate the process'.
"Though officially we have not been informed, we are aware of the outcome of yesterday's meeting. But the election process will not get hampered and we are going with the publication of the official notification tomorrow ... The schedule will not be changed," Sinha told a press conference in Kohima on Tuesday evening.
He said that despite the declaration, four political parties -- NPF, BJP, JD-U and Congress -- participated in the meeting called by the state election department during the day despite the CCNTOCS appeal to the political parties to stay away from it.
On the demand by tribal organisations for solution to the Naga political issue before election, he said, "Our department and the EC are following a constitutional mandate and legal requirement to elect a new assembly before the term of the present house comes to an end on March 13."
The election department, he said, is fully prepared for the polls.
Filing of nominations will begin with the notification tomorrow and continue till February 7.
The last date of withdrawal is February 12.
Votes will be counted on March 3 and by March 5 the entire process of election would be completed.
He said that the state has 11,89,264 voters, adding that there are a total 2,194 polling stations spread over the 60 constituencies.
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