After five years of dysfunctional government and three chief ministers, Nagaland braces for Assembly polls again. Even ministers in the Naga People’s Front government admit that little has moved in the last term. The ruling party is rapt in its internal dissensions and associated largely with corruption. Voters in Naga villages and towns now hope an election will break the limbo of the last few years.

Yet Nagaland defies most traditional electoral calculations. For years, guns and money have queered the pitch. Anecdotes abound of candidates doling out cash and other gifts to buy votes, silently backed by underground groups operating in the state. This year, a Clean Election campaign launched by the Nagaland Baptist Church Council is believed to have curbed such practices, but there are varying accounts of how effective it has been.

Besides, very local ties of village, clan and tribe can trump party loyalties here, and individual leaders matter more than political manifestos. Often, voting decisions are made collectively, under the diktat of village councils rather than by individual voters. The broad brush strokes of party ideology and support blocs cutting across constituencies are usually inadequate to paint a true picture of polls in Nagaland.

Two major factors, however, shaped politics in the run up to the Assembly elections, which will be held on Tuesday. First, there is a reconfiguration of party alliances that is likely to change the composition of the next government.

Second, this was the election that almost wasn’t. Tribal bodies and civil society groups had demanded that the polls be deferred until a solution to the Naga political question be found. Eleven parties signed a bond saying they would not field candidates. Had the BJP not backtracked later, this might have worked. The Naga peace talks, held between the Centre and seven militant groups, is the shadow process that runs parallel to these elections.

Political jigsaw

At the party level, this will be a moment of reckoning for the Naga People’s Front, which has led the ruling coalition for three terms. The Democratic Alliance of Nagaland has now ended. The Naga People’s Front has parted ways with the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has tied up with the newly formed National Democratic Progressive Party.

In the run up to the polls, the Naga People’s Front has played up its credentials as the oldest regional party, truly representing Naga interests. Yet, hit by defections, shorn of allies and struggling with three terms worth of anti-incumbency, the party fights a lonely battle. There is talk of a post-poll alliance with the Congress, which has been reduced to irrelevance in the state.

The challenger to the old Naga party is the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party. Formed last year, it has no identifiable ideology so far. It does, however, boast of the most recognisable face in Nagaland politics: Neiphiu Rio, chief minister of the state from 2003 to 2014. Once a star member of the Naga People’s Front, Rio joined the new party this January. It will pitch him as the chief ministerial candidate if it gains a majority. Since the only other candidate in Rio’s constituency has withdrawn his candidature, he has won the seat unopposed even before the elections are held.

After much negotiation, the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party sealed a 40-20 seat sharing deal with the BJP in the 60-seat Assembly. Much to the chagrin of its state unit, the national party will play second fiddle in the alliance. If nothing else, the new alliance means Nagaland will have an Opposition again. Such was the gravitational pull of the Naga People’s Front that, since 2015, all 60 legislators sat on the treasury benches. It made Nagaland the rare state where Congress and the BJP were not on different sides of the aisle.

Rio’s personal popularity, combined with the promise of largesse that a party in power at the Centre brings, makes the alliance a strong contender in these polls. But worries about the BJP’s Hindutva politics, so blatantly professed elsewhere in the country, have not quite been dispelled in the Christian-majority state. The influential Naga Baptist Church Council has already warned voters about parties with “communal agendas”.

Solution after election?

The agenda that all parties pay lip service to is bringing a political settlement to the Naga political question, a demand for independence that spawned an armed struggle which has lasted decades. After a framework agreement for a peace accord was signed in 2015 by the Centre and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah faction), the largest armed group, a political settlement had seemed imminent. Each party now claims it is peculiarly positioned to expedite the settlement.

The tribal bodies demanding that the polls be deferred had coined the slogan, “solution before election”. The BJP retaliated with “election for solution”, implying that a stable government was needed before a settlement could be reached and that it was the party to do so. Had Prime Minister Narendra Modi not signed the framework agreement in 2015 and appointed an interlocutor for peace talks? Had it not widened participation in the talks from the NSCN(IM) to six other armed groups? It took a party in power at the Centre to bring in a solution, the BJP argued.

The Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party seems to promise interventions at the Centre, since the BJP is already an ally. The Naga People’s Front, for its part, reminds voters that it was the first party to raise these demands within a democratic set up and was prepared to step aside if the solution ushered in an alternative political structure.

The Naga solution is the one issue that could have stalled the polls. Then it became the issue on which the polls are fought.

Waiting for Nagalim

But after decades of conflict, what does a political solution mean for Nagaland? The rebel armies had fought for an independent homeland called Greater Nagalim, made up of all the Naga-inhabited areas in Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar across the border.

The details of the framework agreement and of any proposed settlement have been kept under wraps. But it is clear by now that the settlement will not bring independence. Even territorial integration of Naga areas within Indian borders looks unlikely.

Chuba Ozukum, who heads the Naga Hoho, the umbrella body for a number of Naga tribes, claims the Centre has agreed to a form of “shared sovereignty”. This had involved discussions about a Naga flag, Parliament and Constitution, a recognition of certain markers of Naga identity. For now, Ozukum said, the changes brought about by the settlement would be “symbolic”. It would achieve the “cultural and social integration” of Nagas without tampering with geographical boundaries.

There is a sense, among Naga tribal leaders and activists, that this too would be an interim solution. “The government of India and the negotiators have agreed, in principle, that Naga people have the right to be integrated in future,” said Ozukum. A symbolic solution seems to be the only practical option in this political moment. It could end the decades of militancy, leaders and activists feel, but future generations could carry on the fight politically.

Back to the future

But will future generations have the will to pursue the old Naga political aspirations? One social activist in Dimapur privately agreed that the hurry for a settlement stemmed partly from the fact that the generation that had fought under the banner of Naga nationalism was dying out.

The secrecy around the agreement certainly has not helped engagement with it at the grassroots level. In Naga villages, most voters shrug when asked what they want from a solution. Since they had not been kept in the loop, they could not even imagine what shape it would take. Many young Nagas, struggling with the lack of jobs and institutions for higher education, often travelling to other states for work or study, would also like to participate in the so-called Indian growth story.

But most agree there must be some sort of solution. Partly because there is weariness with the status quo. Businessmen, hotel owners and transporters across Nagaland strain against the system of parallel taxation imposed by the rebel groups. Indeed, some call it extortion rather than taxation.

Each rebel group claims to run its own government and levies taxes for it, demanding a cut from profits and revenues collected in the state. Since the original armed group splintered into several factions, residents of Nagaland have to pay at least eight parallel taxes. A solution to the Naga political question, it is hoped, would end this system.

Besides, a nationalist movement that endured for decades has deep emotional roots in the state, and the idea of a solution still bears great symbolic weight. It explains why the issue features so prominently on party manifestos and in political rallies. For many in Nagaland, these elections are only a step to the solution, with its promise of a new political future.