A few kilometres outside Kohima town, at the new ISBT station, a group of men were deeply engaged in conversation. Hailing from neighbouring villages in the Eastern Nagaland region, they worked as daily wagers in Kohima and planned to return to their respective villages to vote in the upcoming assembly election on February 27.
Their chief concern was their mode of travel. Would it be cheaper to hire a taxi and pack in as many people as possible, or take a bus from Dimapur? From Dimapur, it takes 15 hours to reach the district headquarters at Tuensang, and then two or three hours to reach the villages.
But Nagaland, like other Indian states, practises a patronage-based kind of democracy in which financial and other benefits, including weeks of feasting activities, serve as the basis for political ability. One candidate had promised to provide the men with free travel and spending money to get there. It’s a good bargain for daily wagers who rely on fixed incomes and, in exchange for free travel, they planned to endorse the politician.
The men also chatted about how they’re no longer bothered about politicians and political parties, because they have no expectations. “It doesn’t make any difference who we vote for,” said Khunyi, 33, from Noklak district. Whoever wins will join the ruling government and we will not get to see them for the next five years.”
The 2023 Nagaland legislative assembly election is unlike any other that the state has witnessed in its 60 years of statehood, making history on many counts. In the fray for 60 seats are 183 candidates, including four women.
Twelve parties are in the fray. The Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party has fielded 40 candidates while the BJP, its alliance partner, has fielded 20. There are 23 candidates from the Congress, 23 from the Naga People’s Front, 12 from the Nationalist Congress Party, 11 from the National People’s Party, 15 from the Lok Janshakti Party (Ram Vilas), seven from the Janata Dal (United), three from the Rashtriya Janata Dal, eight from the Republican Party of India (Athawale), and 19 independent candidates.
The fledgling Rising People’s Party, that looked like a formidable force a year ago, has fielded only one candidate, with the party’s operations slowing as the election approached. According to an anonymous party member, the rationale for not fielding more candidates is that “Nagas are not yet ready for the cause we are fighting for, but we are here for the long haul”.
The ‘opposition-less’ scenario
The major regional political parties that have dominated Nagaland politics at various stages all have a history of merging with larger parties at some point. However, the previous term saw something never seen before in the state’s history. In April 2020, the state’s only opposition party, the Naga People’s Front, merged with the governing Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party, essentially ending all opposition.
As a result, some sincere voters are disappointed and confused this time around.
Dr Shurhozelie Liezietsu, former chief minister and president of the NPF, clarified: “We have made it absolutely clear that the only reason our party supported the formation of the opposition-less government was to work together to find a peaceful and amicable solution to the Naga political crisis.”
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Shurhozelie Liezietsu, former chief minister and president of the NPF.
Liezietsu, who has witnessed every assembly election in the state so far, added that the current assembly election leaves him sad and disappointed, because Naga electorates are “losing their uniqueness” and “forgetting why we fight elections”. Instead, he said, this election has been reduced to a “game of money”.
“Money plays a role in elections,” he said, “but never on this scale.”
The veteran Naga politician admitted that his party could have been in a better position but the short timeframe prevented them from reorganising. He also criticised the alliance between the BJP and NDPP.
“They have the money power, unlike us, and they are using it to woo voters,” he said. “BJP Nagaland is just a fleeting party. Once the BJP in Delhi wanes, the BJP in Nagaland will naturally disintegrate.”
The BJP alliance’s strength
The most formidable candidate this election is Neiphiu Rio, the leader of the NDPP and current chief minister of Nagaland who’s already served four terms. Campaigning relentlessly and imploring voters to back his alliance, he’s clearly taking no chances in his crusade to become chief minister for the fifth time. Rio has emphasised that a solution to the Naga political issue will be his government’s top priority.
This is echoed in the NDPP-BJP alliance’s theme song for the election, which contains these lyrics: “There’s a new song in the air/ A song of peace and harmony/ Not by words but by deeds/ Sabka saath, sabka vikas.”
For a non Hindi-speaking state, adding the BJP’s national slogan to the song is a subtle way to penetrate the Naga’s social psyche. It’s clever too, since Nagas love to sing, and what better way than having youngsters hum along to their tunes? The song, however, quickly sparked controversy. Local vloggers took offence to their footage being used in the song’s video without their consent. The BJP wasted no time in taking it down from YouTube.
Nagaland chief minister and NDPP leader Neiphiu Rio.
Yet one thing is sure – Nagas have wholeheartedly embraced the BJP, dispelling any earlier fears that a Christian state will reject a Hindu nationalist party that is also anti-minority. This is clear from how the NDPP and BJP tickets were the party tickets that were most in demand. They are also the only alliance partners fighting on all 60 seats.
In Kohima, the BJP’s newly inaugurated office bustled with activity. Everything was neat and orderly, unlike other party offices in the state.
Sitting comfortably in his private room, state general secretary Eduzu Theluo said, “Nagas have understood that the BJP is a political party and not a religious party. That is why Nagas are embracing the BJP government. The amount of developmental work that has taken place in the last few years under the Modi government is another reason why there is growing support for the party.”
While the BJP has quickly penetrated Naga society, there are pockets where it’s viewed with suspicion. One of these pockets is Kohima – out of six seats here, the party has fielded only one candidate.
Whither the Congress?
The once impenetrable Congress of the 1980s and ’90s is today most susceptible, so much so that even party tickets generated little interest. However, state president K Therie was defiant.
“What makes the BJP-NDPP alliance think they can come up with a resolution in another five years if they haven’t done so in the last 20?” he said. “This election will have a fractured mandate and the Congress has a decent chance of reclaiming control. So, if not Neiphiu Rio, the BJP in Nagaland lacks an acceptable chief ministerial face.” Therie is the front-runner for the position of chief minister in the Congress.
In such a scenario, Therie said, the Congress is the “only option and we will work with all regional parties. Because of the BJP’s anti-Christian stance, Congress has a great chance of garnering mercy votes from Christian voters this time.”
Politicising the Naga political issue
Nagaland’s intellectual community believes different political parties have used the Indo-Naga issue as campaign rhetoric to further their political objectives. It’s a sensitive and contentious subject in Nagaland, making it a powerful tool in the hands of politicians, especially during elections to garner votes.
But in reality, the issue picks up steam around election campaigns to maintain the status quo – to protect their chair and channel public funds. Candidates place little emphasis on the state’s other deep-rooted problems, choosing instead to focus on the Naga political rhetoric. They also employ it as a diversionary strategy from the issues voters are dealing with, such as unemployment, water supply, public transport, road, electricity, healthcare and education.
This political gimmick makes a mockery of the protracted Naga issue and nurtures a political economy ruled by an oligarchy. It’s been seen in the past and is being repeated through this campaign season, as evidenced by party manifestos and candidate speeches.
The emergence of concerned citizens running for election is a distinction noticed this election. Among the new breed of politicians is Kahuto Chishi Sumi, a political activist and Gaonbura. As a newcomer, Chishi quickly became Nagaland’s most intriguing new political figure in a matter of weeks. YouTubers and news outlets have been paying close attention to his views on fighting corruption and other hot-button topics like tribalism and churches.
“I am contesting for different reasons unlike the other politicians today,” he told this writer. “I am running for a larger platform to raise awareness about the evils consuming our society. The rest of India has a superficial idea of Nagaland’s level of corruption. Christianity has been reduced to prohibition and the shutdown of shops on Sundays.”
Kahuto Chishi Sumi, a political activist and Gaonbura.
Chishi has made some particularly outspoken and controversial remarks. For instance, he encouraged voters to “take cash” from politicians while casting their ballots for whoever they want – this at a time when the highest church body in Nagaland, the Nagaland Baptist Church council, is running a “clean election campaign” asking voters not to sell their votes. Younger generations, mainly those on social media, have taken notice of his campaign because of his fearless and bold demeanour, his embrace of truth and justice cutting across tribe lines, and his visceral contempt for seasoned politicians.
There are also a significant number of young candidates in the race. The two youngest candidates – Thomas Konyak from Tizit town and T Atsuba from Pungro-Kiphire – are both 26 years old and represent the Congress party. Naga culture seldom trusts young people with important matters because it is believed that knowledge and experience grow with age. So, the acceptance and support these young candidates have received from their communities and constituencies represent a significant shift in attitude by the older generations.
Among the younger candidates is Mashenlo Kath, a 33-year-old contesting for the Congress. Contesting from Kohima town, his entry here is also the first of its kind as a member of the Rengma tribe, considered an outside tribe in Kohima which comes under the Angami tribe’s constituency. In a state where tribalism is pervasive, it’s almost unheard of for another tribe to contest from outside its designated district, except for Dimapur, the commercial hub of Nagaland, where each tribe has its own dominated colonies.
Overall, most voters are still unsure what to expect in this election. Will the state enter another opposition-less government or will a surprise post-poll alliance modify the NDPP-BJP’s predetermined victory? Will Nagaland get its first female legislator? And will this election result in a consequential shift in Naga politics?
We’ll find out on March 2.
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