Political parties in the outgoing Nagaland Legislative Assembly formed an “opposition-less” government on September 18, 2021, to facilitate the ongoing Naga peace process between the Government of India and Naga rebel groups. While a solution is still not in sight, the Naga People’s Front (NPF), one of the constituents of the government, now finds itself isolated ahead of the upcoming Assembly election.
The two other major constituents of the ruling coalition, the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have forged a pre-election alliance in a bid to retain power for a second consecutive term.
Polling is scheduled to be held on February 27 in 59 of the total of 60 seats. (The sitting BJP legislator from Akuluto constituency, Kazheto Kinimi, has been re-elected unopposed. His lone opponent, N. Khekashe Sumi of the Congress party, withdrew his nomination on the last day.)
After the 2018 election the party positions were: NDPP-18, BJP-12, NPF-26, NPP-2, Janata Dal (United)-1 and Independent-1. The vote shares were: NPF-38.78 per cent, NDPP-25.30 per cent, BJP-15.31 per cent, Congress-2.07 per cent, National People’s Party-7.12 per cent, and JD(U)-4.49 per cent, while independent candidates together polled 4.28 per cent votes. The NDDP’s strength increased to 21 after two NPP legislators joined with it ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election and the party won a by-election later.
The NDPP’s strength in the House swelled to 42 after 21 of the total of 25 NPF legislators, including former Chief Minister T.R. Zeliang, joined the party in April 2022. Zeliang, who was also the chairman of the United Democratic Alliance that ran the opposition-less government, said that the move was a consensus decision aimed at the formation of a stronger regional party. The development helped the NDPP call the shots in seat-sharing talks with the BJP.
The NDDP has fielded candidates in 40 seats and the BJP in 20. BJP supporters staged protests over the seat-sharing formula and mounted pressure on the State leadership for seat-sharing on a 30-30 basis. The NDPP’s performance will determine how much of the power pie the BJP will have get to share this time.
The Congress is contesting in 23 seats, the NPF in 22 seats, the NCP and the NPP in 12 each, the LJP(RV) in 15, RPI(A) in nine, JD(U) in seven, the CPI and RPP in one each, and independents in 19.
Among the BJP’s 20 seats include 10 (including the one won uncontested) won by the party earlier, seven by the NPF and two by the NDPP. Transfer of votes polled by the NPF and NDPP previously will be a crucial factor for the BJP in nine constituencies to increase its tally from 12 in 2018.
The NPF shares power with the BJP in Manipur and has also kept the door open for joining any political party in government formation in Nagaland, which keeps alive the possibilities of all post-election permutations and combinations to win the numbers game.
The BJP dumped the NPF ahead of the last Assembly election after sharing power for 15 years and forged a pre-election alliance with the NDPP. Even though it emerged as the single largest party, the NPF lost the numbers game and remained out of power. The NDPP and BJP succeeded in forming the government as they were short of the magic number by only one seat.
The concept of an “opposition-less” government provided an opportunity to the NPF to get a share of the power pie last year. The NPF joined the ruling NDPP-BJP coalition in August 2021.
The 72-year-old incumbent Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio won unopposed from Northern Angami-II constituency in 2018, but this time he is locked in a straight contest with 37-year-old Congress candidate Seyievilie Sachu.
Other prominent candidates in the fray include former Zeliang, Deputy Chief Minister and senior BJP leader Y. Patton, State BJP president and Cabinet Minister Temjen Imna Along, NPF Legislature Party leader K. Nienu, and Pradesh ongress Committee President K. Therie.
There are only four women candidates among the 181 in the fray. No woman has ever been elected to the Nagaland Assembly so far.
The Congress contested 18 seats in 2018 but failed to win a single one. This time round, the party has put up candidates in 22 seats. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, it gave a tough fight to the ruling NDPP by riding on the popular support for the movement against the Citizenship (Autonomous) Bill, 2019 or CAB (which subsequently became the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019). The NPF did not contest and extended “issue-based” support to the Congress candidate on the CAB issue.
The NDPP won the lone Lok Sabha seat in the State by securing 5,00,510 votes (49.84 per cent) against 4,84,166 votes (48.21 per cent) polled by Congress. Seven NPF legislators, however, opposed the party’s decision and extended support to the NDPP.
In the 2018 Assembly election, the Congress polled only 20,752 votes. The NPP contested 25 seats, won two and polled 71,503 votes. In the Lok Sabha election, the NPP polled 14,997 votes, an independent candidate polled 4,620 votes, and 2,064 were cast for the NOTA category. The NDPP candidate won with a margin of 16,344 votes.
The ruling NDPP-BJP alliance has made development the key election plank. In its campaign it has been emphasising that Nagaland has “stitched together a story of growth and prosperity” under the Central government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It is also claiming that the Modi government “is constantly creating sustainable employment opportunities for the people of Nagaland”.
The NPF, in its election manifesto, said that even though the opposition-less government was formed, the NPF as it stands today does not in any manner participate in actual governance or administration of the State and that it should not be held accountable or responsible for the way the State has been run during the last five years. Apart from a separate flag and constitution for Nagas, the issue of integration of all contiguous Naga-inhabited areas in Nagaland and the neighbouring States of Manipur, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh, is one of the thorny issues that pushed the ongoing peace process between the Government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) rebel group to a dead-end even after peace talks since 1997.
Also, the NPF alleged that Nagaland suffers from “multiple extortions. The common man suffers the most and pays the heaviest price on account of multiple and systemic extortions prevailing in the State.” It has promised to ban “extortion of any and every kind” and eradicate it from the State “through appropriate legal means”.
The Congress has made unemployment, power shortage and load shedding, and delay in the construction of a medical college its key election issues and has promised to make infrastructure a top priority.
Delisting of converts from ST
The demand of the Janajati Dharma-Sanksriti Suraksha Mancha’s (JDSSM) Assam chapter to delist from Scheduled Tribes those who have converted to other faiths has become an election issue in both the Christian-majority States of Nagaland and Meghalaya where polling is scheduled on the same day. The Congress accused the BJP and its ally NDPP of remaining silent on the demand. The BJP, however, denied any link to the organisation, and also opposed the demand.
According to 2011 Census data, of Nagaland’s total population of 19,78,502, 17,10,973 come under the ST category (86.47 per cent) while 17,39,651 are Christians (87.97 per cent).
Spotlight on eastern Nagaland
The Eastern Nagaland Peoples’ Organisation (ENPO) had given a call to boycott the Assembly election until the Centre meets its demand for the creation of a “Frontier Nagaland” by carving out a separate State comprising six districts in eastern Nagaland, namely Mon, Tuensang, Kiphire, Shamator, Longleng, and Noklak. This triggered uncertainty over the smooth conduct of elections in 20 constituencies. However, the ENPO, a banner organisation of seven Naga tribes of these six districts, withdrew the boycott call following an assurance by Home Minister Amit Shah on February 2.
On January 22, the Eastern Nagaland Legislators Union (ENLU), a forum of legislators representing these 20 constituencies, had decided to participate in the election, rejecting the boycott call. The forum included 15 MLAs from the NDPP, four from the BJP and an independent legislator.
While the parties have drawn the battlelines, the hopes for a Naga peace accord are brighter after the NSCN(IM) and the Naga National Political Groups (NNPG),a conglomerate of seven rebel groups, jointly declared “unconditional commitment” under the aegis of the Forum for Naga Reconciliation on January 14 to collaborate for the resolution of the political and historical rights of the Nagas on the basis of their respective agreements with the Government of India.
The NSCN(IM) signed a “Framework of Agreement” with the Central government in 2015, while the NPPG signed an “Agreed Position” with the Centre in 2017. The government made it clear that a single peace accord would be signed with all rebel groups.
In 2018, the BJP took the lead in ending the consensus among political parties for “solution before election” and pushed for “election before solution” by clarifying that the party was not in favour of boycotting the Assembly election.
The candidates’ matrix in the upcoming election shows that there will be a straight contest in 22 seats. Of these, the NDPP is locked in straight contests in 14 constituencies while the BJP is facing a straight contest in eight seats (including three with Congress). With a triangular contest in 21 other constituencies, Nagaland is poised for an intense electoral battle.