New Delhi: After an initial cloud of uncertainty loomed over the assembly elections in Nagaland – which sprung out of a strong demand from a number of civil society organisations for a “solution before election” (which means the Centre signs the Naga Accord first) – the northeastern border state with as many as 20 lakh voters is all set to see voting on February 27.
Setting aside the popular demand, which led as many as ten political parties to declare that they would not contest the polls before a solution to the Naga political issue is arrived at, the Election Commission of India (ECI) went ahead with the decision to hold elections as it is a constitutional necessity after a government completes its full term. Though filing of nomination papers opened on January 31, candidates began to show up for it only on February 6, a day before the nomination date ended.
The state, which saw a spate of political uncertainty over the last year, leading to ugly power struggles and change of chief ministership twice, is expected to settle down for a steady five-year term after the poll results are out on March 3.
As many as 195 candidates across different regional and national political parties are in the fray, out of which 60 winners would form the state’s 13th unicameral legislature.
While the regional player, the Naga People’s Front (NPF), which has been in power since 2003, is trying out its electoral fortunes once again, the state’s politics has seen a complicated turn of events in the run-up to these assembly polls with the entry of another local entity, the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP). Former NPF chief minister Neiphiu Rio is its face.
Rio, who headed the NPF governments thrice (from 2003 till 2014) before opting to contest the last general elections from the state’s sole Lok Sabha seat, which, in turn, facilitated the incumbent chief minister T. R. Zeliang to take over the top chair, is being backed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
On February 3, the BJP announced its pre-poll alliance with NDPP. As part of the understanding, BJP is contesting 20 seats, leaving the rest of the 40 to NDPP. It is understood that if the NDPP-BJP combine succeeds in getting the required 31 seats to claim a simple majority, Rio would be the claimant to the chief minister’s post.
On February 13, the ECI declared him elected unopposed from the Northern Angami-II seat. However, NPF sources claimed to The Wire: “Rio won by blocking the road to the district commissioner’s office with JCVs, which left the NPF candidate with no option but to walk. He failed to reach the DC’s office on time to file his nomination papers.” Among such issues, the campaigning also saw a flurry of violent incidents including attacks on candidates, such as BJP’s candidate from Bhandari, M. Kikon, and NPP’s Koridang candidate T. Chalukuma Ao.
BJP’s pre-poll alliance with NDPP had immediately triggered tensions with the ruling NPF, pushing their long electoral relations to a near breakup. The BJP has been a part of the NPF government since 2003. However, lately, the relations seemed to sour with NPF president Shurhozelie Liezietsu accusing the BJP of playing a role in toppling him from the chief ministership to put Zeliang back on the saddle and thereby meddling in its internal affairs.
Though Zeliang was seen negotiating with the BJP national leaders, including the general secretary in charge of the Northeast Ram Madhav for a possible NPF-BJP pre-poll alliance, as per state party sources, the BJP’s national president Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally chose to go with Rio’s NDPP.
However, BJP has been treading cautiously. It hasn’t officially walked out of its alliance with the NPF yet, which is also a partner of the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA). Some of its party leaders have reportedly gone on the record to say BJP would go with whichever of the two parties with adequate numbers, thus ensuring its entry into the next government, no matter which of the two regional players are ahead.
The BJP has seemingly worked out the arrangement also keeping in mind the delicate state of its government in Manipur. Besides the four MLAs from National People’s Party (NPP), the N. Biren Singh-led BJP government in that state with 21 MLAs, had to take the support of the four NPF MLAs to claim a majority.
However, recently, in a veiled threat to the BJP, the NPF said it would withdraw support to the BJP government in Manipur after the March 3 results were out. According to local media reports, NPF, which is contesting 58 seats, is also in “back channel talks” with the Congress for a possible post-poll alliance. Congress, which initially fielded 23 candidates and has given the state three chief ministers, is now left with 18 after five of its contenders withdrew their nominations, reportedly after the party failed to provide them with funds.
Among other players is also the NPP. After merging with a regional party, Nagaland Congress, in the run-up to the elections, the party has fielded 25 candidates in the state’s elections for the first time. Then there are other players like the Janata Dal (United) and Lok Janshakti Party (LJP).
In total, as many as five women candidates are trying out their luck this time, hoping to break the record of being the first woman to be elected to the state assembly. Nagaland is one of the rare states in the country to have never elected a woman MLA.
With the BJP’s principal campaigner PM Modi making a number of trips to the other two poll-bound northeastern states, Tripura and Meghalaya, Nagaland too was on his to-do list.
However, the selection of Modi’s rally in Tuensang on February 22 was a giveaway that the BJP hoped to make a dent in the four border districts of the state – Mon, Tuensang, Kiphire and Longleng – in which the Eastern Nagaland People’s Organisation (ENPO) has a considerable influence.
The ENPO, which has been demanding the separate state of Frontier Nagaland comprising these districts, seemingly has the support of the Modi government keeping in view the increased rate of talks it has been carrying out with it. In November 2016, addressing a public rally, Satyendra Garg, joint secretary (Northeast), said: “The demand for a separate state appears genuine”.
Eight of the ten seats that the BJP is contesting in the state are among the 20 seats spanning across these districts. The state party sources said while BJP is not much of a force elsewhere in the Christian majority state, also because of its Hindutva politics at the national level and religious freedom surfacing as a strong poll plank for the first time, it hopes to have a good show in these districts considering the central government’s willingness to cede to the statehood demand.
To counter its “anti-Christian” image, the BJP has reportedly promised senior citizens a free trip to Jerusalem. This has come after the Congress put in the manifesto that it would set up a board to “facilitate minorities to visit Holy Land at a subsidised cost.”
This strategy of the BJP to pick as many seats as possible from the ENPO stronghold must be keeping in mind its aim at not only being a part of the next state government but also to be in a stronger position within Nagaland’s political sphere to be able to convince all the stakeholders and the principal negotiator and the signatory to the Framework Agreement in August 2015 – the NSCN (Isak-Muivah) – to roll out the Naga Accord before the 2019 general elections. The ENPO is the apex body of the six Naga tribes. Besides the ENPO, the Modi government has recently begun talking to six Naga National Political Groups to reach a consensus on the Accord.
A few weeks ago, Ram Madhav told reporters in New Delhi, “Most importantly, we are looking for a government (in Nagaland) that would help us in taking forward and amicably concluding the Naga talks that have progressed to a great extent. We need a government that will be helpful in concluding the Naga agreement which we want to conclude in all seriousness as early as possible.”
Some poll observers in the state are of the view that delivering the Accord would, above all, show the Modi government in good light for being able to deliver something that the Congress couldn’t and thereby help it to count it as an achievement before facing the general elections.