By NISHIT DHOLABHAI
New Delhi, May 21 : Narendra Modi has chosen a new face to represent the Northeast — Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio over veteran Purno Sangma.
As part of the NDA and head of the North East Regional Political Parties Front (NERPF), Rio was given pride of place by the Prime Minister-designate after the NDA co-ordination committee meeting today.
Rio, like Modi, entered the central hall of Parliament for the first time today and was among the five selected speakers from the alliance. He was also one of the 15 leaders who went to Rashtrapati Bhavan along with Modi to meet President Pranab Mukherjee.
Visually at least, Rio’s position was elevated on an even keel with the likes of Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray and the Shiromani Akali Dal’s Parkash Singh Badal. Indications are that Rio will be part of, what is likely to be a lean council of ministers headed by Modi.
The Prime Minister is spoilt for choice when it comes to ministers from the Northeast. The BJP is Assam, led by Sarbananda Sonowal, scored a scintillating seven-seat victory while Kiren Rijiju defeated Congress’s Takam Sanjoy to win the Arunachal Pradesh (West) constituency.
Politically, the Nagaland chief minister did what Modi was expecting of him: translate Modi’s language for the region’s benefit. “Better days are ahead for the region,” said Rio, with an obvious translated reference to the BJP’s campaign slogan: “Achchhe din ane wale hain (better days lie ahead)”.
Purno Sangma, former Speaker and no stranger to the central hall of the grand Parliament building, is a part of the NDA but was on the sidelines today. Sangma was one of the first leaders to have declared support for Modi, much before the BJP chose Modi as PM candidate.
The former NCP leader and current National People’s Party chief is being seen as a waning force. Sangma’s predicament is that he is better known in the rest of India more than being accepted as a leader in the Northeast. It was only on May 13 that he formally joined the NERPF.
Rio played his cards well in advance, cobbling up an alliance and going on whirlwind campaigns for the NDA at his own cost. Incidentally, Rio is the only chief minister other than Modi who contested the Lok Sabha polls and he did not fail to buttress the point.
“I had three years to go (as chief minister) but when I spoke to Modiji I was inspired by him to play a bigger role and contribute to the region,” Rio said in his speech at central hall. Having hosted Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Kohima in 2003, the Naga leader had a clear edge over Sangma who was first with the Congress and later with Sharad Pawar’s NCP.
Mentored by senior Congress leader S.C. Jamir, the Naga politician scripted his speech exactly like what the Gujarat strongman would have wanted to hear. Modi has made no bones about his philosophy: “minimum government, maximum governance” and is believed to be averse to doles.
“People of Northeast don’t want to be a liability to the nation. We want to play a participatory and contributory role in the making of this great nation,” Rio said. “We are sure that under Modiji’s leadership, better days are ahead,” he added.
Having faced resistance from the UPA government in releasing funds, the Naga People’s Front leader did not mince words today in slamming the Congress.
The three-time chief minister said he was first elected in 2003 but shortly before the next election, the UPA government imposed President’s rule for two months.
He said under Congress rule, the Northeast had not developed and the Nagas suffered.
Rio met Modi yesterday but did not reveal whether he wanted a ministerial berth. The NERPF, which elected him a leader, had requested Modi that Rio be given a “prominent” portfolio. That, however, was before the results that catapulted BJP with such a strong mandate.
Apparently it was this sentiment that led BJP MPs from Assam today to openly demand ministerial berths. Sarbananda Sonowal, along with three other newly elected BJP MPs, today said they expected four ministries to fall into their lap. Three seniors, Ramen Deka, Rajen Gohain and Bijoya Chakravarty, did not accompany them to brief the press.
“It is true that people of Assam expect four ministries and we also would be happy with it, but that does not mean we would get it. We will keep working for the party,” said Sonowal. Tezpur MP R.P. Sarmah who defeated Bhupen Bora of the Congress, even named the portfolios of choice. “We would like to have petroleum, coal, DoNER and transport,” he said.