FRIENDS AND foes say the ‘L’ in his name stands for lafdaa (trouble, in Hindi). They also aver he has this ability to smooth-talk his way out every time he lands in one.
In Nagaland, where rebels run parallel governments even on ceasefire mode, Home invariably is where the heart isn’t. But Imkong L Imchen couldn’t say no to Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio – he has almost replaced predecessor SC Jamir as Nagaland’s power centre – when he was given charge of the Home Ministry in 2008.
A Google search tells you Imchen was detained at Kathmandu’s Tribhuban International Airport on June 30 for carrying Rs 9 lakh in denominations of Rs 1,000 and Rs 500. These high-value Indian notes are banned in Nepal owing mainly to the counterfeit currency ‘industry’ there.
The search doesn’t enlighten you more on Imchen, 54, besides his attending this or that function in Nagaland. “Maybe because I am not an enlightening person,” he says. “But let me enlighten you; I was carrying only Rs 2 lakh on my way back from attending a friend’s son’s wedding in Kathmandu. And seriously, I was unaware of the currency note ban.”
Can he be taken seriously? “He has the gift of the gab and he knows how to make the most of opportunities. I, personally, would take anything from him with a pinch of salt,” says former tourism minister and Congress leader Vatsü Meru. Colleagues in Imchen’s ruling party, the regional Nagaland People’s Front (NPF), too are unwilling to give him a character certificate. “Don’t ask me, go through his performance,” says NPF leader Phushika.
Imchen laughs off the allegations of non-performance with his typical brand of humour. “Tell me, can any married man ever be the lord of his home? How can they expect me to be the master of the other home with a capital ‘H’? But seriously, I cannot assess myself; it is for the people to decide.” And, fellow party men point out, for CM Rio.
That Imchen, who belongs to the Ao Naga tribe, is close to Rio, an Angami Naga, is clear from the portfolio he handles. In a state where tribe and clan matters – just as caste in ‘mainland’ India – proximity often decides how high a person’s political career graph rises. Quite an achievement for a former Congressman and an ex-crony of Jamir, who Rio had fallen out with before the 2003 Assembly elections, his detractors say.
“Don’t read too much into my portfolio. I am not the most high-profile leader in Nagaland after the Chief Minister,” asserts Imchen. “I wasn’t even in the NPF until 2008 elections when I contested on the party’s ticket from Koridang constituency (in the Ao-dominated Mokokchung district),” adds the native of Mangmetong village, who did his masters in sociology and anthropology from Meghalaya capital Shillong in 1982.
Imchen’s political career began the usual way – social service and students’ activism. From general secretary of the potent Naga Students’ Federation to local-level leader of the Congress – he joined the party in 1976 – his rise was “pretty slow” until he quit the party when denied a ticket to contest the 2003 polls. He won the Koridang Assembly seat as an Independent and lost no time in becoming an associate member of the NPF. Rio later made him the education minister.
In 2007, Imchen landed in the first of his major controversies – nominating his son in one of the seats reserved for Nagaland in the countrywide Joint Entrance Examination. “If as a father I don’t bat for my son, who will?” he said on the floor of the Nagaland Assembly. He did withdraw his son’s nomination after the Opposition stepped up the heat.
Soon after, a village in Wokha district accused him of violating a ban on fishing during the breeding season. He is now a ‘devil’ to Nagaland’s all-pervasive Church for trying to lift prohibition. “When people drink anyway, why deny the government its rightful revenue and let bootleggers carry on minting money?” he argues.
Quite a spirited point! But if that doesn’t land him in a lafdaa, something else will, friends and foes say.