In the run up to the 14th legislative assembly elections in Nagaland, many residents and members of the clergy in the Christian-dominated tribal hill state have been actively participating in a ‘Clean Election Movement’. The objective of the movement is to spread voter awareness regarding illegal and unethical voting practices and to highlight the active corruption that locals claim is a focal point of the elections.
“Proxy voting and voting in return for bribes is a big problem in Nagaland,” states Dr Sani Athisu who teaches at Oriental Theological Seminary, Chumukedima. The group organised a sensitization campaign earlier last week in Dimapur with the theme ‘Your Stand Decides the Future’ and is based on clean elections and ‘One Person One Vote’. Proxy voting includes the continuing retentions of the deceased in the voting lists, Athisu states. "The practice as such is not only illegal but abhorrent to our faith and culture. By stopping the same, we believe, will afford dignity to the dead ones and to ourselves," he adds.
“Elections in Nagaland are all about money power and corruption. The main purpose of our campaign is to make voters aware of the malpractices that take place and their pitfalls,” Athisu states. He adds that while the campaign reaches out to all voters, youth are the primary target audience. “The problem of corruption is a deep-seated problem and it is only by changing the mindset of the youth that long-term change can take place,” Athisu tells Outlook.
“When elections occur, parties come and offer a lot of money to voters and candidates. It’s totally a game of money,” a Nagaland based researcher tells Outlook on condition of anonymity. He adds that while all parties are guilty of corruption, national parties have more money power than regional parties.
The Election Commission of India has held that money power should not influence voters and is working with district magistrates, local level hill council members, religious bodies, tribal leaders, and civil society groups to ensure clean elections.
Flying surveillance teams (FST) and static surveillance teams (SST)s have been set up to keep constant watch on election related activities. Other teams include video surveillance teams (VST) and video viewing teams (VVT) and media certification and monitoring committees (MCMC) that work with district administration and police as well as the election officers. Magistrates and nodal officers are tasked with overseeing the activities carried out by the groups.
And yet, money has been steadily flowing under the tables. From the time of the announcement of elections on January 18 to the first week of February, various enforcement agencies working to ensure clean elections in Nagaland have seized contraband, freebies, and cash accounting for Rs 31 crore.
According to Mane Phom, student leader from Longleng, politicians in Nagaland are finally trying to become part of mainstream politics. Phom adds that several parties are trying to exploit this new ambition among local politicians to its benefit. Longleng-based environmentalist and farmer Nuklu Phom adds that it’s easy to buy candidates as well and when people don’t get the desired tickets or portfolios, they switch.
The BJP and NDPP currently form the government at 20:40 ratio at present, though the former has been working on increasing its footprint in the eastern districts like Longleng.
BJP, which previously had no presence in Nagaland, surprised observers in 2018 after it won 13 seats in the Nagaland assembly and formed a government with Neiphiu Rio’s NDPP. Many in Nagaland believe that the Centre's purported support for the ‘Naga solution’ at the time seemed to help the party garner supporters in the state. Critics claim that the party has failed to provide either the ‘Naga solution’ or deliver on the promise of development. In a previous interview to Outlook, researcher Nazeem Siddiqui had highlighted the poor condition of roads and questioned the “development” work done by the government in the past five years.
The issue of corruption has been raised by the BJP’s political opponents as well. Earlier this month, Pradesh Congress Committee chief K Therie spoke out against corruption. At a conference held in Dimapur, Therie rhetorically asked voters why there hadn’t been any development in Nagaland despite no dearth of funds with the present government. He also publicly vowed to prevent any departments run by the government to the indulge in unethical practices during the elections.
Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which has been trying to make inroads in Nagaland this year, has also spoken out against corruption and said, “Politics in Nagaland is based on money power. It is a huge game of money and the Aam Aadmi Party never encourages such kind of politics.”
Religious bodies have been playing their part when it comes to spreading awareness and trying to change people’s mindsets by preaching Christian values. Last year, the Nagaland Baptist Church had announced a campaign for clean elections in Nagaland. In January, two villages, Nihokhu in Niuland district and Thizama in Kohima district, were declared as “bribery free” by the Election Commission. The EC is also on the lookout for “candidate setting party camps” and distribution of liquor.
In Longleng in eastern Nagaland where the dominant body Eastern Nagaland People’s Organisation had been leading a call to “abstain” from the upcoming elections, the mood changed in a day after the withdrawal of the boycott call on February 4. Truckloads of party workers across different political parties streamed into the towns and villages. Many were seen drinking in huddles. In Tuensang, a camp was set up near the town square early in the morning of February 6 to welcome the party’s candidate PB Chang. A party worker told Outlook to ensure not to report on food being fed to the locals in a small tent behind the reception ground.
“It might be against Model Code of Conduct. We are not sure. It’s just breakfast,” he adds.