This is an election of several firsts in Nagaland – the first election that the Naga People’s Front (NPF), the largest political party in Nagaland and one that has dominated the state’s politics since its inception in 2002, will not field a candidate in Lok Sabha polls; the first time in 15 years that NPF will not back BJP in the state; and the first time it will support arch-rival’s Congress’s candidate, veteran leader K L Chishi.
This will also be the first time that a Lok Sabha election will be this closely contested in Nagaland, with former NPF leader, Neiphiu Rio, having floated his own party – the NDPP – and now the chief minister in alliance with the BJP, seen as having a tough fight from the Congress.
Stating that political dynamics has changed in Nagaland, NPF secretary general and Rajya Sabha member K G Kenye said: “We made a conscious shift after the BJP became this communal. The previous (NDA) leadership, under Atal Bihari Vajpayee was fairly moderate – Vajpayee was always popular in Nagaland; he accepted that Nagas had a unique history and needed to be dealt with separately, with special status. But that is no longer the case.”
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Kenya said although the NPF has been a bitter rival of the Congress in the past, “we are supporting them because they represent secular forces. We don’t want votes to be split between them and what we feel is now an increasingly communal BJP.”
He said the fact that the Narendra Modi-led government has made clear that it will pass the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) when it returns to power is also a reason behind the decision to back the Congress candidate. “It is a matter of survival of the Nagas now,” he added.
Ahead of D-day – Nagaland votes in the first phase, on April 11 – Hindutva, as championed by the BJP and its supporters, seems to be one of the key issues. “The Hindutva narrative has taken hold even in villages in far-flung districts in this largely-Christian state. Many people have started believing that the country will become a Hindu nation if the BJP returns to power,” a political analyst in the state said.
“Of course, Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio is a popular leader and he will try and swing votes in favour of the NDPP candidate, but it remains the toughest electoral battle Nagaland has seen in recent years,” he added.
This analyst said the Congress seems to be at an advantage for the first time in 15 years.
But NDPP president Chingwang Konyak said that given the protection Nagaland enjoys under the Constitution, the CAB is an irrelevant issue in the state. “The Opposition sure is raising it, but Nagaland is protected – no outsider can buy land here,” Konyak said. “We have the Inner Line Permit, which means no Indian can come without this permit, so we are protected. Even what they are saying about Hindutva is rubbish; we don’t believe people will buy into that. We are confident of victory.”
Tokheho Yepthomi, who won the bypolls after Rio vacated the seat to contest the Assembly polls, is the NDPP candidate.
Pointing out that the NPF had been a BJP ally all these years, party president Shurhozelie Leizietsu said, “But this BJP no longer follows in the footsteps of Vajpayee. There is fear among the minorities in the Northeast (because of Hindutva).”
Last month, 21 Nagaland leaders who had left the Congress over years rejoined the party. They included former state Congress chief S I Jamir, former Assembly Speaker Z Lohe, and former Deputy Speaker Joshua Sumi.
“This is a clear indication of Congress’s revival in the state,” Chishi, the richest candidate in fray in the state, according to his assets declaration, said. “These leaders had left due to organisational weakness of the Congress. The fact that they are back is also indicative that the electorate is, at the moment, leaning towards our party.”
The political analyst quoted above pointed out, “When Rahul Gandhi held a rally in Dimapur recently, he got a rousing reception – nearly 25,000 people turned up for the rally, which is huge by Nagaland’s standards. For some reason, Rahul Gandhi and the Congress have managed to capture the imagination of Naga people, and the NDPP-BJP combine is finding it difficult to gain traction now.”
In the state Assembly election, held in early 2018, NPF had won 27 of 60 seats, four short of a majority. Rio’s NDPP won 17, and with the backing of the BJP, which bagged 12 seats (the saffron party had won only one seat in Nagaland Assembly before last year), Rio became the chief minister.
The NDPP was formed amid a bitter power struggle between then outgoing Chief Minister T R Zeliang and NPF president Shurhozelie Leizietsu on one side, and Rio on the other.
Chishi maintained that this will also be the first “issue-based election” in a state that has otherwise seen personality- or candidate-driven polls. On the Congress’s main campaign issues, Chishi counted four: “Stopping CAB implementation, once and for all settling the Indo-Naga political issue, anti-uniform civil code, and protection of the people against a Hindu Republic.”
Kenya said certain other platforms that the present BJP-led government at the Centre has diluted has also “angered” the Naga people. Among these is dilution of the North East Council, which advised policies to be implemented in North Eastern states as well as streamlining projects and funding, he said. “We don’t know why the BJP diluted this council; it has now been reduced to a mere research body,” Kenya said.
“The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which is still implemented in Nagaland is another major issue. And there is a sharp contrast between the positions taken by Rahul Gandhi, who talks of taking a re-look at this brutal law, and Modi who talks of strengthening it. Even Arun Jaitley has repeatedly talked of the need for AFSPA, which is disturbing for us.”
The, Kenya said, there is the Framework Agreement. “When Modi came to power he seemed determined and said the Indo-Naga issue will be solved in 18 months. It has been five years, but the talks seem to have lost steam and he seems to have lost interest,” the NPF leader said.