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Expediency and Principle

In Nagaland, there are no permanent allies or enemies in politics.


When Nagaland votes on 27 February, the real battle will not be just between different political parties but also between expediency and principle. On 29 January, 11 political parties signed an agreement to boycott the polls until a settlement was reached between the centre and the Nagas about their future status. Yet, within days the boycott fizzled out. Led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that had also signed the statement, all parties justified abandoning the principle that had drawn them together and instead chose the path of expediency. No party wanted to risk another party winning the election by default as had happened in 1998 when the Congress party won practically all seats uncontested.

As far as political alliances go in Nagaland, the fluidity of choices exceeds anything witnessed in mainland India. Currently, all 60 elected members of the assembly are part of the ruling Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN) headed by the Naga People’s Front (NPF). There is no opposition. The BJP has been an ally of the NPF for more than a decade. Eight Congress legislators joined DAN in 2015. So oddly, both BJP and the Congress were part of the same alliance. Yet in the run-up to this election, the BJP has announced a pre-electoral alliance with NPF’s newly formed rival, the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP), a breakaway group led by former chief minister Neiphiu Rio. Despite this, current chief minister T R Zeliang announced that his party was not opposed to a post-election alliance with the BJP. Thus you have two regional parties opposed to each other with a common national partner and two national parties opposed to each other with a common regional partner.

The explanation for this strange state of affairs is fairly evident. The party that wins in the state has to ensure that it is aligned to the party that rules the centre. This has been the governing principle of Nagaland’s politics for decades. Like most other northeastern states, Nagaland is entirely dependent on central funds. No elected government can afford to alienate the party in power at the centre.

Yet, while this reality might explain the way politics plays out, it does not explain why all parties, even those critical of the ruling party at the centre, feel they have to fall in line. The only real opposition in Nagaland is civil society and the church. Significantly, the powerful Nagaland Baptist Church Council (NBCC) has suggested that the Nagas should be wary of the BJP’s Hindutva agenda and in a recent statement has asked Nagas “not to compromise our religion for the sake of development and political gain.” To this the BJP, a party that has perfected the art of using religion during elections, responded, without a trace of irony, that “religious polarisation seems to be the choice strategy of some people in Nagaland during elections.” Although all 20 BJP candidates are Christian and Naga, it will be interesting to see whether the NBCC’s statement has an impact on their prospects.

The principle that led to the call for a boycott was the long-pending question of Nagaland’s political status. Despite being granted statehood in 1963, the idea of a separate Naga nation has never died. Successive ceasefire agreements between insurgent groups and the central government brought some semblance of peace to the state, but conflict never ended. In August 2015, when the largest of the insurgent groups, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) reached a “framework agreement” with the current government at the centre, hopes were raised that there would be some form of settlement. Yet the nature of the agreement remains shrouded in mystery till today with the advent of an imminent announcement being dangled every few months. It was the prospect of a settlement that prompted Naga civil society groups, insurgent groups and political parties to demand that elections be deferred.

The outcome of these elections is unlikely to provide any solace or solutions. Despite there being no paucity of funds, Nagaland suffers from acute developmental neglect on a number of fronts, most visible in the state of its roads. It is also evident in the lack of jobs for a highly literate young population and in the continuing frustration of ordinary people who pay indirect taxes to the insurgent groups to keep the peace but get no direct benefits from either these taxes, or the central government’s largesse. Much of that goes into the pockets of the political class that knows the dividends of being in power. Regardless of political affiliation, it is the patronage and wealth linked to power that guides politics.

Despite its dismal politics, Nagaland’s civil society gives hope. Its members have pushed through a peace process, spoken out about corruption in politics and campaigned for clean elections. Last year, Naga women’s groups raised the contentious issue of gender representation in institutions of governance. They failed in their demand for 33% reservation in municipal bodies. Yet they succeeded in triggering a debate on the issue of gender equality in a traditional society. In these elections, only five women are contesting. There has not been a single woman elected to the state legislature, and only one woman elected to Parliament since 1963. It is the questions that civil society groups are raising within Nagaland that represent the real politics in that state, not the election drama that is enacted every few years.

Updated On : 23rd Feb, 2018


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