Somewhere in an urban locality in Dimapur, 32 women, some in their early 20s and many past their 40s, are gathered in the house of one of their neighbours, a highly articulate woman. There are smiles all around. There are three men too. Inside the house, one woman ticks off names on the electoral list – Rs 3000 written in red on top. Bundles of cash are neatly placed on the table next to her. Yesterday, she had ticked off names of the men in the locality.
The animated chatter and warm parting handshakes bode well for the men, who are eager to deliver the good news to their boss. In an exercise that begun four days ago, the two men, agents of a candidate contesting from one of the biggest constituencies in Dimapur in the February 27 Nagaland Assembly election, have apparently ensured around 600 votes for their boss from one locality. The elders in the family have been paid Rs 3000 each while the younger voters have been paid varied amounts ranging from Rs 1000 to Rs 4000. In the next few days, smaller amounts would be distributed among the youngsters to ensure the campaign doesn’t lose steam before polling day. The exercise is more of a gamble as some of the beneficiaries might be wooed over by the rival candidate with more cash. But, the two leaders of the locality who have arranged the meetings ensured the candidate of the integrity of their flock.
As the gathering fades away into the poorly-lit lanes, two women are cajoled back into the house. They had refused to accept the ‘cha-pani karcha’ (expense for tea and snacks). Both are influential in the locality and could guarantee about two dozen votes between them. The two women in their late 40s demand that the candidate personally guarantees jobs, at least that of a government teacher, for their children in exchange for votes, if he wins. One says even the job of a peon in a government department would be enough.
As the woman of the house counts the money heaped on the table, she nonchalantly remarks that she wouldn’t get much sleep till election day as people would keep on coming back for more cash, and alcohol, even those who do not reside in her locality.
The much-hyped Clean Election Campaign in Nagaland has all but disintegrated as the election fever grips the state. Even as political parties keep up the public facade of campaigning in line with party ideologies and manifestos, the actual campaign starts after the energetic and promising speeches when hands exchange cash. The ‘real campaign’, as the agent of a contesting candidate says, is executed wooing the influential leaders with money and gifts, direct purchase of votes by paying individuals, wooing the youth with cars and bikes, and the food and alcohol.
The candidates have their agents, and the agents have their own sub-agents in various localities and villages. Clan politics takes precedence and rival candidates go all out to woo the influential clan leaders with money. The colony or village chairman are usually the go-betweens for the candidate and electorate.
According to data provided at a seminar on clean election organised by YouthNet, one candidate in the 2013 elections spent as much as Rs 40 crore. That year, Zunheboto district topped the spending chart with Rs 167 crore while Dimapur had an estimated spending of Rs 155 crore. According to the estimates, 33 candidates spent less than Rs 1 crore (only one won), 85 candidates spent between Rs 1-5 crore (24 won), 42 candidates spent between Rs 5-10 crore (22 won), 12 candidates spent between Rs 10-20 crore (three won) and 11 candidates spent more than Rs 20 crore (eight won).
A former minister explained that people in rural areas would rather vote for the one who came first to ask for vote or the one who offers more money instead of making a correct choice. And in urban areas, people sell their votes for considerations to get a government job, to receive a promotion, to get posting in desired places and to receive financial assistance.
Even as posters and banners screamed ‘Clean Election Campaign’ over the streets of Nagaland, theologian Reverend Mazie Nakhro was forced to withdraw his candidature within hours as his clan didn’t expect him to win the election by playing clean. But N. Akavi Zhimomi, a candidate in Dimapur districts Ghaspani-1 AC, has shown a ray of hope to those who refuse to sell their votes.
Zhimomi is the young face of clean election in Nagaland. With zero declared assets, he is the poorest candidate contesting on an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) ticket. Talking to indianexpress.com, Zhimomi says he has been compelled to join politics seeing the pathetic situation of his “corruption-ridden” state. “I stay with my parents, I own nothing. The situation in Nagaland has driven me to do something crazy,” he informs about his decision to contest the elections.
While other candidates purchase vehicles for their supporters for campaigning, Zhimomi commutes in his parent’s car with friends and relatives contributing for the cost of fuel. “I am not spending any money, except for fuel for the car. Sometimes my friends take me around in their cars for campaigning. I go to speak to people, not to give money and buy votes.” Zhimomi says his friends like him are also fed up with the corruption and they are enthusiastically supporting him.
A graduate, Zhimomi claims he was offered a government job three years ago, but turned down the offer. “I told my parents that I won’t join as because of this kind of system, our society is not getting healed.” In 2017, Zhimomi came into limelight when after someone posted a photograph of him selling egg-rolls by the roadside. “I have done course in hospitality and could have got a job in any other state, but I decided to stay home and work for the society.”
“In Nagaland, we talk about change, we talk of corruption, we talk about changing the system. We don’t find any candidate who is clean and ready to sacrifice for the public. I realised that I can change the system only by getting into the system.” Zhimomi says people are being deprived of their rightful share, as everything in Nagaland happens ‘under the table’.
His opponents have declared assets running into crores of rupees, but Zhimomi is unfazed: “I believe clean election is possible; if not in other constituencies, at least in 4 Ghaspan -I, starting from me. When we do good, something good will come out of it. It’s a matter of sticking to the principles, and holding up expectations of the people.”
Zhimomi further adds that “the Church has asked people to pray and fast for clean elections. Many believers are fasting, and I believe miracles and good can happen.”
Wati Longkumer, who first voted in the 2003 election, says clean election is a far-fetched concept in today’s Nagaland. “Purchasing votes has become such a tradition that the first thing asked about a candidate is how much he is worth. A candidate with just one or two crores gets sympathy, not votes.” Asked what is the panacea to the problem, he says, “it’s a vicious cycle where people create corrupt politicians and politicians rob to create a desperate electorate.
While cash is being used to buy votes, alcohol too is flowing in abundance as the D-day inches closer despite this being a dry state. Reports of authorities seizing consignments of IMFL, purportedly belonging to contesting candidates, can be seen now and then in local newspapers. But observers say the seized alcohol would be just 5 per cent of the total liquor that is sold and consumed in the state, particularly during elections.
‘Change is Coming’, reads the campaign banner of a political party. Ask anyone on the street and the response is a hearty laugh. “Nothing will change. The only change will be pocket change for public,” says Kethoselie, a high school teacher. But he agrees that people are waking up and this election there has been some response to the call of clean election.
As the SUVs carrying the agents of the candidate speed away, the cash delivered and praying the gamble works, somewhere in a village in Nagaland, a young man puts up a while flag over his house. Many such flags, scattered across Nagaland, can be seen flying over modest homes. The flag spells the commitment of the family to a new Nagaland. Printed in red over white, the flag fluttering in the cold February breeze reads, ‘Clean Election’.