Meghalaya and Nagaland: Behind fractured verdicts, affinity for local candidates rather than parties

Voters in both states appear to have had other considerations when they made their choice — leadership being least important.

Written by Shreyas Sardesai | Updated: March 5, 2018 5:39:11 am
Meghalaya elections, Nagaland elections, North east results, Mukul Sangma, Conrad Sangma, TR Zeliang, Neiphiu Rio, Indian Express Mukul Sangma submits his resignation as Chief Minister to Governor Ganga Prasad at Raj Bhavan in Shillong Sunday. (PTI Photo)

The elections in Meghalaya and Nagaland were described by the media as a battle between two leaders. The contest in Meghalaya was portrayed as being one of incumbent Chief Minister Mukul Sangma of the Congress and National People’s Party (NIP) president Conrad Sangma. In Nagaland, T R Zeliang of the Naga People’s Front (NPF) and Neiphiu Rio of the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) competed against each other. Both Zeliang and Rio have served as Chief Minister. However, voters in both states appear to have had other considerations when they made their choice — leadership being least important.

Pre-poll surveys conducted in both states by Lokniti-CSDS a week before the elections found voter affinity for local candidates far greater than their loyalty to a particular party or a leader. It is this localised preference that may partly explain the fractured verdicts in Meghalaya and Nagaland. In both states, three out of every five voters (61%) interviewed said they were planning to vote based on the “candidates”. Only one in five claimed that their vote was going to be for a political party. Barely 1% said they would be voting on the basis of leadership ability.

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This is in complete contrast to Tripura, where Lokniti’s post-poll survey found just two of every 10 respondents voted on the basis of local candidates. When voters in both states were asked who they would prefer as their chief minister, more than half (52% in Meghalaya and 62% in Nagaland) were either unwilling or unable to mention a name.

The surveys in the two states also noted a high sense of ignorance regarding campaigns. In Meghalaya, only 15% reported being greatly interested in the campaign; in Nagaland, where parties had come under pressure to boycott the polls, high interest among voters was found only a little higher at 22%. Compared with Tripura, where 55% said they were greatly interested in the campaign, these figures appear very low.

Voters in both states were found clueless about which party or alliance was likely to win. In Meghalaya, six of every 10 people interviewed failed to say who would win. The proportion of those who refrained from predicting a winner was seven in 10 in Nagaland. Given the apparent indifference among voters, the lack of interest in the campaign, and the constituency/candidate-specific nature of the competition, it is hardly surprising that the states ended up with hung assemblies. Interestingly, when respondents in Meghalaya were asked about their opinion on a coalition government, most seemed open to the idea. Only a fifth was of the opinion that there should not be a coalition government.

Rise of BJP

The verdicts in these two Christian-majority states bring to the fore another shared feature — the breakthrough of the BJP in spite of its perceived “anti-Christian character”. One possible explanation could be that in a situation where most people voted for a “candidate” and not a “party”, the fact that most of the BJP candidates were Christians may have helped the party overcome the image problem. Second, even as our surveys found a majority of respondents of the opinion that “the BJP is an anti-Christian party”, a fairly sizeable proportion (one in every four) of voters did not hold such an opinion. It is because of such voters, mostly Christian, who did not view the BJP as communal, that the party performed well. In Meghalaya, one-fourth of such voters voted for the BJP, and in Nagaland one-fifth did. In fact, voters in Nagaland who considered the party “anti-Christian” voted for it. This may be due to its candidates and its alliance with a major regional outfit — the NDPP.

The fact that the BJP is ruling at the Centre may have contributed to its rising popularity in the two states. A large number of voters (49%) in both states were of the opinion that the ruling party at the Centre and the state should be the same, that this eases the development process. However, this figure was much higher in Tripura (60%). In Nagaland, nearly 41% of the voters were of the opinion that the BJP-led government handled the Naga problem in a more efficient manner compared to previous governments.

Finally, an analysis of tribal voters in these two states suggests that though the BJP may be a growing force, it still has limited appeal. The party has managed to bring only a few tribes into the fold. According to the survey data, Jaintias in Meghalaya seem to have voted more for the BJP than the Garos and Khasis. In Nagaland, it was the non-Ao and non-Angami tribes who voted for it in large numbers. Vote for development

Amidst these similarities, there is one key aspect on which the two states differ — voters’ satisfaction with their respective state governments. Despite not being able to achieve a majority, the Congress government of Mukul Sangma enjoyed a fairly high satisfaction rating. While three in five voters (58%) claimed they were satisfied with the performance, only one in three (34%) expressed dissatisfaction. In Nagaland, only 41% expressed satisfaction with the NPF government, whereas 51% claimed they were dissatisfied.

A little over half the respondents in the two states said development and good governance would be the most important issues for them. Bad roads and unemployment were among other important issues. While the verdicts in both Meghalaya and Nagaland are being described as a vote against the ruling party, the data suggests that voters appear to have focused more on candidates while voting than their government’s performance. This has resulted in a situation where forming post-poll alliances to come to power has become inevitable.

(The author is associated with Lokniti-CSDS)

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