A Naga never forgets and rarely forgives. That dictum is perhaps driving the playbook of the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine as Nagaland’s electorate of 1.20 million votes for the state’s sole seat on 11 April.
The state, which has had an uneasy relationship with the mainland since the days of the late pro-independence leader Angami Zapu Phizo, is wary of National Democratic Alliance (NDA) promises because of the Naga Peace Accord, 2015, held up by slow progress of talks and the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. These, along with the aversion of the people of the Christian-majority state toward the BJP’s agenda to promote Hindutva and the uniform civil code, are the major issues in Nagaland.
The direct contest in Nagaland, where money power has fuelled political corruption, is between the ‘hand’ and the ‘globe’, the election symbols of the Congress and the NDPP, respectively. Many believe the BJP-NDPP alliance has an edge because the state tends to send the ruling party candidate to the Lok Sabha. “If you don’t have support in Delhi, any state project will run into roadblocks," said Kathi Chishi, secretary of Toka MPCS, an organization that provides financing for rural livelihood.
The NDPP’s candidate is Tokheho Yepthomi, the current member of parliament, who won the seat last year after Neiphiu Rio vacated it to contest the assembly elections. The Congress candidate is K.L. Chishi, former chief minister and a veteran Naga politician. Conrad Sangma’s National People’s Party has fielded a candidate, while the Naga People’s Front is backing its arch rival, the Congress, because it is against the BJP’s majoritarian Hindutva agenda and believes Congress is the party with a secular plank. An independent, M.M. Thromwa Konyak, is also in the fray. The BJP released its manifesto on Monday, restating its commitment to passing the citizenship amendment bill, which had sparked violence in the North-East. However, Yepthomi said on Friday, that after “the government is formed, the NDA partners will meet and then discuss. And what will be best for all stakeholders will be decided on that basis."
Nagas are wary of the BJP’s Hindutva agenda but, equally, resent Bangladeshi Muslims. “We are not against Indian Muslims or Muslims from the mainland. We don’t want Bangladeshi Muslims or “miyas" here," said a businessman, requesting anonymity.
“The BJP wants to introduce a uniform civil code. It is dangerous. Once enshrined in the Constitution, Article 371(A) which provides special protection to the Nagas will go. Secularism is in danger under the BJP government," said K.L. Chishi.
The BJP-NDPP alliance is banking on the NDA government’s infrastructure push to win, as the resource-constrained state is largely dependent on central grants. The Union budget proposed a 21% increase in budgetary support to the North-East region for the fiscal year 2019-20. This amounts to a total outlay of ₹58,165 crore.
“There is a difference in the way elections are held in the mainland and in the north-eastern states, except Assam. It is difficult to do house-to-house canvassing as we have to cover the entire state. The main issue in this election is the Naga political settlement. We are mostly focussing on development," Yepthomi said during a break from campaigning. “Till 2013, although dialogue was there, progress was not there… That’s the difference between the UPA and NDA. I should say that the (Naga) solution is expected once the NDA forms the government," Yepthomi said.
Nagaland has a population of 1.97 million, with more than 70% of the people living in rural areas. It has 1.20 million voters across 11 districts and 2,227 polling stations. “Central leaders were prepared to come, but we are confident and comfortable. We requested them to give more time in some other areas," said Yepthomi, who won a by-election with a margin of 173,000 votes last year. Civil society and religious organizations also carry considerable weight. They include organizations such as Naga Hoho, Naga Tribes Council, Nagaland Baptist Churches Council and Naga Mothers’ Association.