On November 21, editors representing seven newspapers published out of Nagaland issued a joint statement affirming their commitment to an ongoing campaign in support of clean elections. The Nagaland Baptist Church Council first initiated this campaign in 2012 ahead of the 2013 Assembly polls. The state is due for polls again in 2018.

The editors who have publicly aired their commitment to the campaign include those from English newspapers Nagaland Page, Nagaland Post, Eastern Mirror and The Morung Express, and three regional language newspapers Tir Yimyim, Ao Milen and Capi.

“To demonstrate our collective endeavour we have agreed to immediately stop publishing any news and advertisements that contradicts the values and objectives of “Clean Elections in Nagaland,” and the principle of ‘One Person – One Vote,” the statement said.

Among other things, the editors said that their newspapers would stop publishing advertisements from, and news issued by, village councils – which play an important and influential role in the modern governance system in the state – or any other non-political organisation that endorses one particular candidate, or any statement that opposes the fundamental principles of the Clean Elections campaign. The editors also called upon journalists throughout Nagaland to adhere to these standards.

The moral position

Almost 90% of Nagaland’s population is Christian, according to the 2011 census. The Nagaland Baptist Church Council, at whose initiative the Clean Elections campaign started four years ago, is the apex body of the dominant Baptist churches in the state. In July, the church council renewed its campaign for the 2018 Assembly elections.

The Council has issued guidelines and pledges devised on the basis of “Constitutional rights, the democratic spirit and Christian values” to be followed in the run up to the polls. The pledges range from shunning bribes, honouring an individual’s right to vote, disallowing multiple or proxy voting, and keeping one’s vote a secret.

It also contains a pledge to refrain from forcing anyone to obey the “collective decision” of clan or village.

This is an important pledge given that personal preference is not necessarily the only factor at play during elections in the state due to the importance given to tribe, clan and village in an individual’s life. These factors are so strong that they can overshadow considerations like governance, transparency and accountability and anti-incumbency, which voters would normally look at before deciding which candidate or political party to vote for. The presence of non-state actors also complicates matters at each level of electoral politics as these groups can also influence voter choice.

Business as usual

However, many are sceptical about the current Clean Elections campaign because of the state of affairs in the ruling alliance. Though the Naga People’s Front was voted to power with an absolute majority in 2013, it has since been plagued with internal bickering and a power struggle that has paralysed governance.

Politicking is likely to intensify as the elections draw closer. Though Assembly elections are two years away, the poll bugle has already been sounded. Electioneering has started, and different camps are being formed unofficially. There have been attempts at political realignment. The sacking of Bharatiya Janata Party MLA Mmhonlumo Kikon as parliamentary secretary for Labour and Employment and Border Affairs in October can be attributed to this realignment.

However, despite the call from churches and other institutions to adhere to the Clean Elections guidelines, a few village councils have, on behalf of their villages, already issued so-called “unanimous” declarations of support for specific candidates in local newspapers. This has drawn criticism from civil society groups.

Revenue squeeze

Besides ethical and moral considerations, the commitment newspapers have made towards the Clean Elections campaign is significant as it will squeeze one of their main streams of revenue: advertisements.

It was Monalisa Changkija, editor of Nagaland Page, who first proposed that newspapers should firmly back the campaign. At an event on the occasion of National Press Day on November 16, Changkija reaffirmed the daily’s pledge to refrain from publishing news or advertisements in which village councils endorse candidates. The editor of The Morung Express, Dr Aküm Longchari, joined Changkija in taking the Clean Elections pledge, and published the daily’s stand on the issue the next day. Editors from other newspapers also joined in.

However, while the move demonstrates the Press’s commitment to clean elections in Nagaland, it remains to be seen whether it will generate any positive impact on the ground.

Moa Jamir works at the Morung Express.