No button on an EVM has been pressed, campaigning has only just begun in earnest and polling day — February 27— is still two weeks away. And yet, Nagaland already has its first legislator. On Monday, former chief minister and leader of the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP), Neiphiu Rio was declared “elected unopposed” from the Northern Angami II constituency.
The Election Commission declared the ‘result’ after the only other candidate, Chupfuo Angami from the Naga People’s Front (NPF), withdrew his nomination. Angami is also Rio’s brother-in-law and from the same village, Touphema. The BJP ended its 15-year alliance with NPF last week and joined hands with the NDPP.
Data provided by the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) Monday – the last day of withdrawal of nominations – showed 32 candidates had withdrawn, including two NDPP substitutes (candidates who had filed nominations in case the primary candidates nomination was rejected), two from the JD(U) and Congress, one each from the National People’s Party (NPP) and NPF and 26 independents.
Abhijit Sinha, CEO Nagaland said, “Yes, Mr Rio has been elected unopposed since the other candidate in the fray has withdrawn. No polls will be held as per the rules.”
Extraordinary as being elected unopposed is, it is perhaps symbolic of Nagaland’s fractured and tumultuous political history that this is not the first time anyone, or even Rio himself, has been elected this way.
In 1998, with massive boycott calls in the state from tribal councils and influential underground groups — who the Government of India is now negotiating with — Rio was one of the 43 Congress MLAs elected unopposed along with then chief minister SC Jamir, who is now Governor Odisha.
Despite calls from civil society and underground groups for a “Solution Before Election” this year as well and a consensus on January 29, political parties filed nominations, primarily on the last day on February 7, with the NSCN(IM) also clarifying that it would not boycott elections.
Along with Rio for the NDPP, Angami had decided to contest on an NPF ticket. On the day of nomination as well, there was controversy after the NPF filed a complaint with the ECI claiming Rio’s supporters had attempted to block Chupfuo’s path to the election office in an attempt to disqualify him. The NDPP had then responded with a counter complaint claiming defamation and said that it was only a traffic hold up.
Apong Pongener, NPF Working President told The Indian Express, “We have just received news that the candidate has withdrawn. It doesn’t matter at all that he was Rio’s brother-in-law. He has contested four times in the past and was a strong candidate. We will have to see the reasons.”
Another senior NPF leader, requesting anonymity, said, “In Nagaland, elections are heavily swayed by tribal councils in the villages. I don’t know if Chupfuo was under pressure or if we will find out in the coming days, but it is true that Rio has the backing of the Angamis and therefore perhaps he thought the election was a lost cause.”
Political analysts in the state said being elected unopposed would work to Rio’s benefit in two important ways. “The first is that this election is seen primarily as a straight fight between TR Zeliang and Neiphiu Rio for the post of the next chief minister. In this battle between them, this gives the signal that Rio is extremely powerful. Second, it frees Rio up from having to pay attention to his own constituency and he can now campaign freely in the rest of the state,” said one analyst.
Zeliang had taken over as chief minister from Rio when both were in the NPF, after the latter had become Lok Sabha MP from Nagaland. Amid fierce infighting, Rio broke away and formed the NDPP that has now allied with the BJP, which was in the previous government with the NPF. While the NDPP is contesting 40 seats, the BJP is contesting 20. The NPF, with Chupfuo’s withdrawal, is going it alone contesting on 58 seats in an assembly of 60.