“He has done good development,” said Nambemo Patton, chairman of the Rephyim village council, approvingly. “We have water supply, electrification, a primary healthcare centre.” They also have two government schools and a private Catholic school, he added.

Rephyim is in Nagaland’s Wokha district. It is the ancestral village of politician Y Patton and part of the Tyui constituency, from where he was elected in 2013. The village is picture perfect, bright houses ringed with gardens in full bloom, a park, and better roads than most parts of Nagaland. The residents of this village have come to depend less and less on land, they say, as many of the younger generation sign up for the security forces.

Patton, who was state home minister, switched from the Naga People’s Front to the Bharatiya Janata Party and resigned from the legislature, just in time for the Assembly elections scheduled for February 27. When asked whether the defection made a difference, the village chairman was reproachful. “That is not the real question,” he replied. “We are not concerned about the party, we only need a quality leader.”

Follow the leader

As the BJP and the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party join forces in Nagaland, the alliance is counting on personalities to push it through. The two parties sealed a seat-sharing deal on February 2, with 20 for the BJP and 40 for its ally. It seems like an audacious bid for power – the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party was formed only last year and is barely known in villages across Nagaland, while the BJP won just one seat and cornered 1.57% of the vote share in the Assembly elections of 2013. As parties, neither has a record to speak of in Nagaland.

But the alliance is powered by high-profile defections. The new party boasts Neiphiu Rio, chief minister of Nagaland from 2003 to 2014 and then member of Parliament, who recently left the Naga People’s Front. The BJP, which avidly accepted political heavyweights into its fold, had even expected to make it on its own. “We are targeting the single-largest majority,” BJP president Visasolie Lhoungu had said just a couple of weeks ago. “That is what we expect now, with so many leaders joining us.”

The seat-sharing arrangement with the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party was not without rancour, especially in the BJP state unit.

A church sign in Tuophema village. (Photo credit: Ipsita Chakravarty).

Customary elections

This emphasis on leaders stems from voting patterns that are perhaps unique to the Nagas, shaped by very local ties of clan, tribe and village, which often trump party loyalties. In most rural areas, customary laws have adapted democratic processes in their own particular way, say political observers in the state.

The larger the native village, the more powerful the clan or tribe, explained a local journalist, the greater the advantage to the candidate. Very often, the decision to support a particular candidate is made at the village level or at least collectively, and the idea of the secret ballot is dispensable.

“In our village, the minority votes first and then the majority,” said a resident of Touphema, Rio’s ancestral village, inhabited by the powerful Angami tribe. He explained that residents supporting the party getting fewer votes went to the polling booths first, followed by those opting for the party with the larger share.

What if a village decides to vote a particular way and a few residents choose to support another candidate? Then they are considered anti-village, which is like being anti-national, said the journalist, laughing.

According to Naga communitarian forms of government, each village is a sovereign republic. Even though wider tribal networks have now been built, almost every village remains distinct, welcoming outsiders through high, steepled gates, and village loyalties run deep. Politicians in the state, however, claim their supporters vote individually and only a few villages still make collective electoral choices.

The cult of the leader is also shaped by other aspects of politics in the state. There is money power, the candidate’s ability to distribute election largesse in the form of cash or liquor, or to spend on a particular area after coming to power. And there is “gun power”, or the backing of underground groups. Both have been the subject of several anguished editorials and campaigns.

Most recently, the Naga Baptist Church Council ran a “Clean Election” campaign directed at these practices. And a board signed off by the “Baptist Church Tuophe Basa” contains a list of injunctions for both voters and candidates. It warns voters to “Flee from money and gun power, vote for peace and prosperity”. Candidates are told to “contest, not for money and power, but for your people”. But it is not clear yet how many people are listening.

Gathering heavyweights

Over the years, powerful leaders have created vote banks that stick, even as they migrate from party to party. “I got elected with BJP in 2008, with Congress in 1998, in 2013 with NPF [Naga People’s Front],” said Y Patton, candidly. A prominent member of the Lotha tribe, the votes followed him.

Recently, the BJP also acquired former chief minister KL Chishi, who made his career with the Congress. Chishi has repeatedly been ranked as the richest legislator in Nagaland – in 2013, he was reportedly worth Rs 51 crores. As he sits in his palatial house in Dimapur, Chishi is tight-lipped about his reasons for swinging from the Congress to the BJP. The BJP is the only party that can bring about a solution to the Naga political problem, is all he will concede.

More politicians were expected to follow him into the BJP fold, especially as the last week saw a slew of resignations both from the state Assembly and from the Naga People’s Front. Besides, according to a BJP party worker based in Dimapur, at least two sitting legislators of the Naga People’s Front were issued BJP tickets.

“In 2013, we got only one seat. This time we will get 15-plus,” said Patton, confidently.

Nambemo Patton, chairman of Rephyim village council, with Nrimimo Ngullie, the village head. (Photo credit: Ipsita Chakravarty).

Going local

But the BJP is not relying on leaders alone. Two other factors make it confident of success. First, the fact that as the party in power in Delhi, it can hold out the promise of Central funds. The underdeveloped, cash-starved states of the North East have traditionally leaned towards parties in power at the Centre: in 2016, Assam went with the BJP after three terms of Congress rule, in 2017, Manipur made the same choice.

“Nagaland needs peace and development, which only the BJP, under the leadership of Narendra Modi, can give, that is why so many leaders are joining us,” said Lhoungu. “We Nagas, we do not have any resources other than the Centre.”

Second, as in other states, the formidable BJP party machine swung into action early, firming up the organisational set up in Nagaland, building up cadre strength. A massive recruitment drive began from last year, Lhoungu said, and the BJP has set up booth level committees of not less than 10 members in 70%-75% of all booths. There are more than 60 mandal level committees, and other bodies, such as the Yuva Morcha, the Mahila Morcha and the Scheduled Tribes Morcha, were also in place, Lhoungu added.

Vikuho Dominic, president of the BJP Yuva Morcha in Nagaland, is a cheery young leader with grand plans for the party. “My ambition is to have the BJP yuva morcha in all districts, villages and mandals,” he declared. “We have an enormous number joining at the local level. We have crossed 15,000 already. Our target was 20,000 but for me, even 10,000 is a big achievement.”

Though these claimed numbers are not visible yet, the party is slowly becoming a familiar idea in Naga villages. “The BJP is becoming stronger, not like before. Before people did not even know what the BJP was,” said Benrithung Kinghen, constable at the village of Changpang on the Assam-Nagaland border.

KL Chishi, former chief minister and a recent recruit to the BJP from the Congress. (Photo credit: Ipsita Chakravarty).

The party of Hindutva?

Still, there are voices of disquiet about the BJP. The party plays down its Hindutva image in Nagaland. But no matter how much it tries to emphasise development over identity politics, and reiterates that it will not interfere with local food habits, it has not managed to shed the saffron tint altogether.

According to Lhoungu, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was only a marginal presence, with about 300 workers active in the state. The saffron group’s activities were not likely to have an impact on the BJP campaign, he said. It does not seem to have touched areas like Changpang. “We are not aware of that, actually,” said Kinghen, when asked about the Sangh and its Hindutva mobilisations.

But the beef bans attempted in other BJP ruled-states and the lynchings by gau rakshaks are not lost on all voters in Nagaland. “Despite the goodness of the prime minister, we see the other side of the story,” said Jonas Yanthan, newsreader at the All India Radio station in Kohima and vice-chairman of the Kohima Lotha Hoho, a tribal body. “There are so many clashes at the social level.” Information about these clashes had spread through social media and could create problems for the BJP in Nagaland, he said.

Already, the influential Naga Baptist Church Council has warned voters against supporting parties with communal agendas. In Touphema village, Zumu, the associate pastor, echoed these fears. “If they take Nagaland, they will impose these discriminatory policies, bringing religion into politics,” he said. “The development is appreciated. But India is a democratic country. If people are allowed to practice their religion then there is no problem.”

Mese Nguli, a resident of Tuophema village who is currently out of work, objected to the BJP’s perceived communal agenda as well as to demonetisation. He liked Rio, Nguli said, but if Rio was going with the BJP, he would not follow the leader.

Allied to the fear of communal agendas is the fear of social and cultural imposition in a state fiercely protective of its distinct identity. “We Nagas, we are people who do not command others and don’t allow others to command us, telling us don’t eat this or do that,” said Yanthan. If the BJP was to hold Nagaland, he said, it needed to be “just a political party”, not an organisation that tried to impose a set of ethics or social regulations.

Dominic was defensive. “In Gujarat, you can’t expect a legislation passed in favour of Christians,” he said. “The same way here, the BJP, when it comes, all 60 legislators will be Christians. All legislations will be within the comfort zone of Christian families and Naga society.”

Rumblings within

The other voices of disquiet have come from within the BJP. Differences between the state unit and the BJP high command were evident after two local leaders signed a pledge on January 29. Along with 10 other parties, they had agreed not to contest elections until a solution was found to the long-running demands of the Naga nationalist movement. The Central leadership then issued a clarification, saying they had not been authorised to sign any documents and the party was still going to contest elections.

Now, state BJP leaders feel short-changed by the pre-poll alliance. Shortly after the alliance was announced on February 2, the state unit issued a statement saying it had about 45 potential candidates and that the seat-sharing arrangement with the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party was likely to have “a negative impact” on the BJP in Nagaland. Letters were shot off to Delhi.

“It is very unfair,” said Jaangsillung Gonmei, an office bearer in the state BJP unit. “Compared to the NDPP [Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party], we were in a much better position. It should have been 40 seats for us and 20 seats for the NDPP. There is a lot of resentment, everyone is restless.”

But it was difficult to prevail against the Centre, he said. So for now, a truce prevails. On February 7, 253 candidates filed their nominations for the Nagaland Assembly elections. Of these, 227 nominations have been cleared after scrutiny.