On a cold, dreary morning in Kohima, a lone woman canvasses door to door, carrying a bag containing fresh fruits and vegetables from her garden. Her knees suffer the most as she traverses the city’s challenging terrain. Yet she is resilient, hopping through narrow lanes to reach her target group – elderly women voters.
Her message, spoken almost in whispers, is sincere and urgent: “If we don’t vote for our woman candidate this time, big parties won’t ever again give us women a chance. It’s now or never.”
A former president of a women’s organisation in her community, the woman had volunteered to campaign for Salhoutuonuo Kruse, the woman candidate from the Western Angami constituency. She’s just one of dozens of women this election who wish to remain nameless as they go above and beyond to change perceptions and create history.
The campaign for the Nagaland assembly election is in its third week. Traditionally, election campaigns in the state have relied on door-to-door canvassing as the most effective means of reaching voters. Here, women volunteers and voters largely predominate men.
This election, it’s clear that the number of women taking part in informal politics is rising in Nagaland. And with good reason. The current state of women participation in Nagaland’s electoral politics is best described as being fraught with contradictions. Although Naga women have always been accepted and encouraged to participate in politics as active members in campaigns, voting and political mobilisation for various parties, men continue to dominate formal politics, as they do in other aspects of Nagaland's key decision-making bodies.
That Nagaland state has never elected a woman to its assembly in its 60-year history indicates serious gender inequality in electoral politics. Out of the 183 candidates in the fray this year, only four are women: Salhoutuonuo Kruse, Hekani Jakhalu, Kahuli Sema and Rosy Thomson.
Kruse, 56, and Jakhalu, 48, are National Democratic Progressive Party candidates, with Jakhalu contesting from Dimapur III where she faces four male candidates and Kruse one. Kahuli Sema, 57, is the BJP candidate from Atoizu and Thomson, 58, is on a Congress ticket in Tening, Peren. Kahuli Sema faces one male opponent and Thomson five.
In contrast to some of the male candidates, the four female candidates can rely on a solid work history.
Kahuli Sema is a civil engineer who took early retirement at the peak of her career as engineer-in-chief of the public works department. Jakhalu is a lawyer and a recipient of the Nari Shakti Puraskar instituted by the union ministry of child and women development. In 2006, she founded YouthNet, an NGO focused on youth empowerment.
Kruse is a well-known women leader in the Angami tribe. She served as president of the tallest women’s entity of her tribe, the Angami Women’s Organisation. Thompson has been a Congress member since her college days. She earned her ticket thanks to her long-standing loyalty to the party and her involvement in various social services.
Regardless of their party affiliations, they all have the same goals in mind. If elected, they promise to prioritise women employment and youth welfare, and promote overall growth in their constituencies and the state.
Other prominent women in the state have come forward in support of all four candidates. “I fully support them, regardless of their different parties and ideologies,” said Sano Vamuzo, former chairperson of the Nagaland Women Commission and former president of the Naga Mothers’ Association. “It's about time we have women in government.”
Vamuzo is the younger sister of the woman whose name pops up every election in Nagaland – Rano M Shaiza, the first woman MP from Nagaland who won the Lok Sabha election in 1977. Shaiza, who died in 2015, had defeated her opponent Hokishe Sema of the Congress, who was also chief minister at the time. Nearly 50 years later, there’s still a lot of interest and intrigue surrounding her win.
Vamuzo explained: “In the 1970s, Nagas were simple. The election was not a joke and wealth had little influence.” Voters were sincere, she added, and ideologies mattered, unlike today’s politics. Vamuzo knows candidates Kahuli and Kruse, whom she described as competent, diligent, and “an asset to the government and for all Nagas”, if elected.
Chief minister and NDPP president Neiphiu Rio also talked about Jakhalu and Kruse during a speech at Khonoma village, where he said the party gave them tickets under the NDPP manifesto of equal opportunities for women. Both Rio and Kruse are also members of the same tribe, and Rio choosing Western Angami constituency for his first election campaign was symbolic in many ways.
“This is our party’s way of saying that we respect women and believe they are just as capable as men,” Rio said in his speech. “In the past, our society has created boundaries for women and even had lower standards for them. However, as time has passed, women have gained equal knowledge and experience and women today have made significant contributions to our society, which is why gender equality and women's empowerment are essential.”
Women from different parties applauded Rio's endorsement of the woman candidates. They believe such words from a powerful man will profoundly impact men, women, and future generations.
These shifting attitudes were seen when Kruse addressed Midland Colony voters from a dais. The men on the dais stood up one by one to support her candidature.
“Please,” one of them said, “in god’s name, vote for her and give her one chance.”
Kruse herself began her speech by acknowledging that her late husband had contested and lost the same seat in the last election in 2018. Members of her party and village elders then asked her to continue what her husband had started. Her clan’s trust in her and support was clear.
The BJP manifesto might have programmes explicitly aimed at women and girls, but it only has one woman out of its 20 candidates.
“That is because only one woman sought the party ticket and it was given to her,” said Nini Cheng, the state co-chief spokesperson of the BJP. “We have a 100 percent strike rate as a result of that action. If more women had applied, the party might have considered. Our party is absolutely committed to women’s empowerment.”
Importantly, the Naga People’s Front, the oldest regional party, did not field a female candidate. In fact, the party has never fielded a female candidate in its history, even though its manifesto this year promises “special women empowerment programmes”.
In Nagaland, money is a significant factor in skewing election results in favour of wealthier candidates. So, ordinary women without financial support find it impossible to contest an election.
Wekoweu Tsuhah, state coordinator of a women’s rights group called the North East Network, put it succinctly: “In a state where the wealth of candidates is scrutinised by voters, Naga women with no family property rights may have a bearing. However, our state is evolving. The fact that major political parties are fielding female candidates is a good start.”
The general consensus is that, besides money, a Naga woman needs the support of her community, clan, family and powerful men to win elections. And this year, all four women candidates have that important backing. The three candidates from the NDPP-BJP alliance may even have an advantage over the Congress candidate. The NDPP women candidates were endorsed by Rio while BJP’s Kahuli Sema received support from central leaders like national general secretary BL Santosh, national secretary and BJP Northeast coordinator Rituraj Sinha, and national spokesperson Nalin Kohli.
Interestingly, citing the “winnability factor”, both the NDPP women candidates were given party tickets over the incumbent male MLAs in their respective constituencies.
‘Days away from realising that dream’
But what does the public think?
Tohuka Achumi, the president of the Nagaland Law Students’ Federation, has been camping in Atoizu for over a month now for BJP candidate Kahuli Sema.
“It’s time to promote and support competent women to enter politics,” he said. “Naga women are leading in all other areas except for politics, which has been a men’s bastion for far too long. Today corruption has permeated our society. We need more women in positions of power who I believe will care and do more for the state and the community.”
Nise Meruno, a celebrated musician and Yamaha India ambassador, said, “As a man, I feel we should all be feminist for the right reasons. More than a representation of women in the assembly, I wish to see our society being run with sensitivity and care – and I am confident the women candidates will bring that to the government.”
Hotelier Zaseta Theyo said, “When choosing a candidate, capability should be the main criteria. And this time, we have a woman candidate who is more capable than her male opponent and deserves our full support.”
A village elder from Rusoma, Mhalelie Vimera, pointed out that one doesn’t need “physical strength” to fight in politics. “So, both men and women should have equal rights and opportunities, so long as they have the capability and a genuine interest in politics.”
“In a sea of contenders, only the four women candidates matter for us women,” said Neidonuo Angami, a Padma Shri awardee and former president of the Naga Mothers’ Association. “The quantity must not discourage us but we must look at the bigger picture of the quality of women entering politics. Even if one of them wins, the impact will be significant.”
Many Naga women share her sentiments. It was perfectly summed up by Awan Konyak, a woman candidate who came close to winning in the 2018 election: “As a Naga woman, it’s our dream to see a woman legislator, and I believe we are just a few days away from realising that dream.”
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