As I write this, there are ust three days for Nagaland Assembly elections on February 27, 2018, for the 13th State Legislative Assembly; and one final day for political parties and candidates to campaign. Print, electronic and social media are abuzz with which party and candidate said what, and people’s views and opinions. However, it would be missing the tree for the woods if we base projections on these reports for the outcome of these elections because the political and electoral dynamics of Nagaland actually has much less to do with politics than with a number of factors that are co-opted for electoral gains ~ and we have seen this in every election in the state since the early 1960s. Yes, there are issues of family, clan, tribe, village, range affinities that determine almost every election result. Elections in Nagaland are also contests of money and muscle power ~ hardly ever of ideologies. If you have read the manifestos of one political party, you have read them all. Despite all NNPGs assertions of not being involved in “Indian elections”, there are evidence to the contrary in the past Assembly and Parliamentary elections. And this is a dicey thing to state because as a group, none are involved but in their personal capacities individual NNPGs have been known to be “actively” involved in our elections, especially on Election Days. Then, it is also an open secret that individual NNPGs do have their favourite political parties or candidates, which became more pronounced during the 2003 Assembly elections.
However, there is much more to the electoral dynamics in Nagaland than the few factors mentioned above. Perhaps the most conspicuous is the role of village councils. In all the Assembly elections held in Nagaland, village councils have always played the most crucial role, which goes unnoticed to the uninitiated in the interplaying dynamics of Naga society. Village councils have always endorsed a candidate from the village ~ once the village council endorses a candidate, it becomes mandatory for every voter of that village to vote for the “chosen one”. Failure to do so would even attract banishment from the village for a certain number of years. If another person from the same village contests, he too would be exiled and disallowed entry into the village. In fact, sometimes candidates of the same constituency from other villages are also barred entry to a village for campaigning. It is interesting how Naga traditional and customary laws have been assimilated into the modern representative form of democracy based on one-person-one-vote. And yes, there is voluminous evidence of village councils directing a handful of people to cast votes on behalf of every voter in the village in previous elections.
This incongruity in the modern representative form of democracy based on one-person-one-vote has not gone unnoticed therefore there is a little change this time. While the Nagaland Baptist Churches Council (NBCC)-initiated Clean Election campaign was more focused on money power during elections, happily this incongruity has also surfaced as an impediment towards clean election ~ in fact, the very essence of representative democracy. You see, village councils don’t endorse candidates for free! Because village councils, the very fountainhead of all political power, economic, social and cultural interface in traditional Naga society ~ and a good part of that still remains intact ~ has set an example of not endorsing candidates for free, so somehow voters have internalized this at an individual level and has come to believe that their votes also shouldn’t be cast for free. The trade-off is not necessarily in terms of cash alone. Ironically, instead of educating voters on the essence of the modern representative form of democracy based on one-person-one-vote, our political parties and personalities, including candidates, have also internalized this incongruity and have come to believe that they have to buy votes. Hence the crores being spent in every election ~ this time too.
However, this time a couple of candidates, who were not endorsed by their village councils ~ even exiled from the village and disallowed entry into village for campaigning ~ moved the High Court, which has directed the state Government and Election Commission to act against village councils contravening the People’s Representative Act. The question is when the state Government and Election Commission very well knew what has been going on, why does it need the High Court to prod it to act to protect democracy and the rights of candidates and voters now? Another interesting aspect of elections here is that even if there is no candidate from a village, the village council would still direct voters who to vote for from the constituency. This time, some villages, whether there are candidates from the villages or not, have abstained from endorsing anyone or issuing dicta to voters ~ definitely, a tiny step in the right direction. But because of the very real dynamics of family, clan, village, tribe, range interplays, as also the weight of money as much as the sway of muscle power ~ implicit and explicit ~ it is still a challenge to quantify the ostensible change this time, especially because there are reports that village councils have directed all villagers, wherever they reside, to head for the village to vote. So urban areas now are quite empty.
There is another spin to such village council directives ~ the number of voters in villages reportedly do not tally with the actual number of residents in the village and it is imperative for village councils to prove the number of voters in the village ~ village councils are not only dependent on Government funds but they also come under the Nagaland Village and Area Council Act of 1978, which renders them “subject to general superintendence of the state Government”. The multi-layers dynamics of electoral politics in Nagaland cannot be easily deciphered, especially when seen through the prism of electoral politics in the rest of the country. So when political parties hard-sell a semblance of ideologies, promises of “change”, good governance, development, even free trips to Jerusalem, no one really takes them seriously ~ anyway, who takes political parties and candidates seriously? Moreover, none of what is promised have any relevance to the Naga, whose life is still dictated by and revolves around her/his rootedness to the village ~ and a good part of that is the dicta of the village council.
Meanwhile, what happens to the votes of a large number of voters whose names are in the electoral rolls of urban areas like Dimapur and Kohima, some of who have already gone to their villages and some of who will make their way to their villages by Saturday? In previous elections, proxy votes were more the norm than the exception but this time, with the introduction of newer technologies, how possible is proxy voting? That, of course, is for the Election Commission here to sort out and indubitably the election results will prove how effective these newer technologies are. Election results would also prove how effective the Clean Election campaign is, as much as how much the heart and mind of the Naga has changed since the previous elections.
(The Columnist, a journalist and poet, is Editor, Nagaland Page)