Less than three weeks ago, it seemed doubtful that elections would be held in Nagaland at all. Major political parties, civil society groups, tribal institutions, and a powerful insurgent group had all called for a poll boycott; there seemed to be rare unanimity in the state on this issue. It took less than 10 days for the situation to turn on its head. So rapidly have things moved that the first result of the elections to be held on February 27 is already in even before polling.
Last Monday, the last day for withdrawal of nominations, former Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio of the newly-formed Nationalist Democratic People’s Party (NDPP) won the Northern Angami II seat after his only rival, Chupfuo Angami of the Naga People’s Front (NPF), withdrew from the contest, leaving him elected unopposed. Rio’s campaign to return as CM is off to a flying start.
Rio is the CM candidate of an alliance between the NDPP, of which he is the leader, and the BJP. The NDPP is the senior partner in this alliance and is contesting 40 seats, while the BJP is fighting the remaining 20 in the House of 60. Their principal rival is the NPF, the current ruling party. The Congress, for long the dominant force in Nagaland, is reduced to a supporting role like the BJP. It will be fighting 18 seats. This is less than the 26 that another new entrant to Nagaland politics, the National People’s Party (NPP) led by former Lok Sabha Speaker P A Sangma’s son Conrad Sangma, is contesting. A surprising new player in the state is Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), which has candidates in 16 constituencies. It had three candidates in the fray in 2013.
Party labels traditionally count for little in Nagaland. People vote for individuals, who are local leaders with long relationships with their constituencies. Further, it is a feature of Nagaland elections that politicians have to pay voters handsomely. The sums are in the thousands of rupees for a vote. Fed up with politicians making false promises, the voters have come to view it as the only sure benefit they can extract from the netas.
The local strongmen—there are no women MLAs in Nagaland—in turn attach themselves to one or another of a handful of state leaders. Three politicians have led the state in recent years. They are Rio, elected CM for three consecutive terms before quitting in 2014 to move to Delhi as Nagaland’s sole MP in the Lok Sabha, T R Zeliang, who succeeded him as CM, and Shurhozelie Liezietsu, who took over from Zeliang a year ago after the latter was forced to step aside following massive protests against a decision by his government to reserve 33 per cent seats for women in urban local body polls. The politics from 2014 has largely been a battle of egos and wiles between these three, all of whom were part of the NPF until recently.
All was well in the state of Nagaland, or so it seemed, when Rio headed off to Delhi after becoming an MP for what he hoped would be a place in Narendra Modi’s Cabinet. That did not materialise. When he tried to return to Nagaland politics he found Zeliang unwilling to relinquish his new position as CM. A series of political upheavals began to take shape, that saw Zeliang replaced by Liezietsu, before the former made a comeback. Both are currently in the NPF and lead their own factions.
Mainstream politics in the state and the broader region has long had close association with underground groups. The fate of a framework peace accord announced in August 2015 by the Indian government and the principal Naga insurgent group, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim’s faction led by Th.Muivah, in the presence of PM Modi, may depend on the peaceful conduct of these elections. The framework has not led to a final agreement, and the insurgents, in peace talks with the government since 1997, are getting restless. There is also an ongoing investigation by the NIA in a case of alleged terror funding in connection with which Zeliang’s Officer on Special Duty Ruokuovizo Chupno and two other members of his staff were recently summoned.
The opposition to the BJP’s entry is strong. The powerful Baptist church in the state has come out against the BJP for its alleged persecution of Christians elsewhere in the country, and asked voters to resist the ‘invasion’ by Hindutva forces. A large section of voters in Nagaland, especially the educated youth, seem disillusioned with their opportunistic and greedy political leaders. However no credible alternative is visible.
Both Rio and Zeliang have curried favours with the BJP, which as the party currently in power at the Centre, controls the purse strings of Nagaland, a state largely dependent on central funds. Liezietsu is the exception; he is an old-timer and a purely local leader.
So the contest boils down to one between fear of a Hindutva ‘invasion’, as articulated by the Church, and hope for an honourable settlement to the peace process, as promised many times by BJP leaders. And there is the final arbiter and the wheels on which the gravy train of polls run in Nagaland: cash. Those with the most money may not always win, but an aspiring MLA who fails to wine and dine his voters and pay them in cash for their precious votes is almost certain to lose.
Given this background, it would appear that Nagaland is likely to see the return of one or the other among the familiar rival duo of Zeliang and Rio, with Liezietsu the dark horse. What combination of parties might bring this about is hard to predict. This, after all, is a state that has seen, as recently as 2015, an all-party government including both the Congress and BJP, and not a single MLA in the Opposition. The need to recover their electoral investments can drive Nagaland MLAs into performing incredible feats of political flexibility.
Author and freelance journalist