Assembly elections in Nagaland are different from elections elsewhere in India because the dynamics of Naga society and the equations thereof are unlike in other Indian states. To begin with, we are very assertive in insisting that we aren’t like the rest of the India. The composition, character and contents of Naga society are very different from other communities in India. The British recognised our distinctiveness and generally left us to our ways of life. Jawaharlal Nehru too realised the wisdom of leaving us to ourselves to the point of ensuring that we live the way we always did and protected our ways of living in the form of Article 371(a).
Naga society is characterised by sovereign village republics. Even within a tribe, no village is under the suzerainty of another. All Nagas belong to a village and our rootedness to our village is incontestable. At the heart of all Naga interfaces are the decisions and directives of the traditional village parliament, the supreme decision-making body of the village.
Now, how does this impact modern representative democracy, based on the principle of one-person-one vote?
Village councils have always played the most conspicuous and crucial role in all the assembly elections since the early 1960s. They have always endorsed a candidate from the village — once the village council endorses a candidate, it becomes mandatory for every voter of that village to vote for the “chosen one”. Failure to do so would even attract banishment from the village for a certain number of years. If another person from the same village contests, he too would be exiled and disallowed entry into the village. Sometimes, candidates of the same constituency from other villages are also barred entry to a village for campaigning. Notice how Naga traditional and customary laws have been assimilated into the modern representative form of democracy based on one-person- one-vote.
Another interesting aspect of elections here is that even when there is no candidate from a village, the village council would still direct voters who to vote for from the constituency. Village councils normally direct all villagers, wherever they reside, to head for the village to vote. Because village councils, the very fountainhead of all political power, economic, social and cultural interface in the traditional Naga society, have set an example of not endorsing candidates for free, voters too have come to believe that their votes also shouldn’t be cast for free.
Ironically, instead of educating voters on the essence of the modern representative democracy, political parties and personalities, including candidates, have internalised this incongruity and come to believe that votes are tradeable merchandise. Hence, politicians spend a large amount of money and make promises during elections. Clearly, you can take a political party and personality out of the village but you cannot take the village out of political parties and personalities.
The might of the village council is so potent that no political party or candidate would risk defying its directives. Hence, it is imperative for candidates to be endorsed by village councils. This explains why it is impossible for any candidate to contest in any constituency other than that under which his village falls — except at Dimapur, where the three constituencies are open to all to contest. Even here, family, clan, village and tribal affinities play a crucial role, besides money and muscle power.
But village councils must not be solely blamed for the evils of money and muscle power — the leitmotif of assembly elections in Nagaland. First, no political party has ever bothered to explain to voters the essence of representative democracy on the principle of one-person-one-vote, in the absence of which village councils have only the traditional systems to go by. Second, development is so woeful that trade-offs become the only means to even get water supply for a few hours, a usable road, few hours of electricity, a primary school or a dai in the primary health centre. Ultimately, village councils have no choice but to resort to traditional means so that villagers can have a semblance of a decent life. This exposes how political parties and candidates here totally discount and ignore the rights of people who voted them to power. The ambiguities and loopholes in the representative form of democracy certainly need to be revisited, especially in societies rooted in traditional ways. The tragedy of our (Naga) traditional ways is that these ambiguities and loopholes of the representative form of democracy cause distortions, which manifest in the form of corruption.
Money and muscle power will carry the day in the assembly election this time as well, but this is possible only with the collusion of the powers-that-be at the village level. No, ideology doesn’t play a role in our elections: Only the power of traditional endorsement, which too has become a purchasable commodity, decides the outcome. The composition, character and contents of Naga society coupled with the modern methods of money and muscle power, including the enticement of alcohol and even drugs to lure the votes — and the deliberate distortions that sneak in, define our elections. Nothing is excluded to grab power — not even the support and cooperation of non-state actors, whose public-posturing gainsays evidence of all previous assembly elections. But that’s another story.
So, who will form the next government in Nagaland? It all depends on the persuasion prowess of political parties on village councils, their money and muscle power and the level of voters’ change of heart and mind vis-à- vis the churches’ clean elections campaign.