THE LEADERS sit side-by-side on a stage, a large banner behind them, and an eager audience down in front. Each leader gets up to speak, taking turns, in an attempt to sway the crowd. In election season, none of this seems quite out of the ordinary in Nagaland.
Except, every leader on the stage is from a different political party, each the candidate from the constituency the meeting is being held in. The audience is not just biased party workers, but voters who have collected from towns and villages. And the banner behind them bears no political affiliation, but carries the name of a student organisation, and nearly always has the words “Clean Election Campaign”.
In its quest for an election free of money and other incentives, Nagaland has come up with “Common Platform”, a US presidential-style exercise where candidates assemble on one stage and speak on policies across villages, towns and district headquarters. The state votes Tuesday but organisers of the “Clean Election Campaign” say the idea was born at a meeting in 2012, months before the 2013 assembly elections. One of those who attended that meeting was Hekani Jakhalu, the founder of Youthnet, an NGO that works with the government to “empower Naga youth”.
“The Church and civil society were stunned at the amount of money being used by candidates to buy and sell votes. A study conducted by Youthnet put the amount at Rs 570 crore. One of the primary reasons, we realised, was the candidates were going door-to-door and this facilitated the distribution of money. So we decided we would begin Common Platform, where civil society and other organisations would organise one public meeting, where candidates would come, and tell people about their policies. The Nagaland Baptist Church Council and the Clean Election Campaign made a resolution to this effect,” said Jakhalu.
Given that the 2013 elections were just months away, only a few places such as Chief Minister T R Zeliang’s home district of Peren, conducted Common Platform then, and the money spent in that elections, according to the next Youthnet study, was up to Rs 980 crore. In 2018, most constituencies across the board have held at least one common platform.
But consensus has taken time to build. The district of Mokukchung has the most seats, 10, with poll related misdemeanours, including violence extremely common. And this was what spurred the Lampangkong Students Federation to take the Common Platform seriously, spending close to two years drumming up public opinion.
“In 2013, we decided that we would back the Clean Election Campaign. In 2016, we had another meeting and decided to seriously take up Common Platform. We visited every constituency, and met leaders in all the big towns, Mokukchung, Dimapur and Kohima. And then it was held successfully this year, backed by the students body and supported by the Church. Close to 800 people attended,” said Limakum Jamir, adviser to the federation.
With student bodies, or often the local Church itself, or civil society organisations in different district headquarters embarking on similar processes, the Platform has become an established procedure very quickly, held across every constituency, and attended by most candidates. The funding for these platforms is entirely apolitical, often crowdsourced.
Nicholas Angami, a voter in the Western Angami constituency, said the platform was the one new element that was being discussed at his dinner table every day.
“Normally, during election time, we talk about how no government has done anything, who the village council had backed, and how much money each candidate was offering irrespective of whether we take it or not. But this time, for days after the Common Platform, we talked about that as well. For the first time, we saw all the candidates together, and everyone has a different opinion on who we liked or who’s message was the best,” he said.
For the moment at least, organisers have stayed away from allowing candidates to interject each other like in televised US Presidential debates. “We want to be careful that something doesn’t go wrong, that no unwarranted event takes place… so that people start accepting the idea, and it happens election after election. This time, every speaker got a fixed time to speak and put forth his views. We will look at counter questions the next time, perhaps,” said Jamir, from the students federation.
MLAs say that while it was an idea that should be encouraged, it will take years for the platform to have a significant impact.
“It should be encouraged, and the idea should be kept. At the moment, in most constituencies, it will only perhaps sway 3 to 5 per cent of the population. In urban constituencies, like Dimapur or Western Angami, where people are more aware and educated, it could have a greater impact. But in rural constituencies, its effect seems limited. I think you will see the benefits in later years,” said Mhonlumo Kikon, former minister and BJP MLA from Bhandari.
The organisers, meanwhile, are turning up the heat on the candidates, documenting the poll promises made in a state lacking basic development. “One way to break the cycle of money is for candidates to make promises, and for there to be witnesses across the board. We are urging people to document what is being said and later go back and verify what has come of these promises,” said Jakhalu.