On February 28, the Nagaland Page, a Dimapur-based daily, ran an open letter to the state’s chief electoral officer. The irate writer complained that a proxy vote had been cast in his name in the Assembly polls held the day before. “Will you take action against the officials?” he demanded. “Can you identify the culprit and press charges for impersonation?”

Not so clean elections?

The Nagaland Assembly polls were held on February 27 in the backdrop of a Clean Election campaign initiated by the Nagaland Baptist Church Council. Aimed to curb electoral malpractices rampant in the state, this campaign was also strongly supported by the Election Commission, members of civil society and the state’s powerful tribal bodies.

The campaign devoted most of its energies to ending the culture of votes being sold, and proxy voting. Widely-prevalent in the state for years, proxy voting refers to the practice of people being hired to impersonate actual voters and vote in their stead.

In the run up to the elections, village headmen and activists for the Clean Election campaign had said that the practice of doling out gifts or cash in exchange for votes seemed to have declined. Activists claimed that the campaign had found resonance among the youth at least.

Come election day, the voter turnout seemed to be lower than in previous years. According to the latest update on Wednesday evening, it stood at 79.4%, more than 10% lower than the 2013 Assembly election, which saw a turnout of 90.19%. According to Abhijit Sinha, the state’s electoral officer, this figure was expected to go up in the final count (which was expected on Wednesday but has not been released yet), but would still be significantly lower than last time.

Sinha said that the difference in voter turnout could be attributed to “the cleaning of electoral rolls”. “Also, we put all the polling stations under CCTV surveillance,” he claimed. He also acknowledged the efforts of members of civil society, saying that they had put in “a lot of effort”. “That is our assessment, other people could have their own versions,” he added.

Local accounts, however, suggest that proxy voting continues unchecked.

‘Where’s my vote?’

Naga social media platforms are replete with testimonies from people who went to vote but found that someone else had already voted in their name. One such person wrote: “Where/who do I go to and make a report if my vote was already cast not by me but someone else. Its theft!! What ‘clean elections’!!”

Another person from Southern Angami-1 constituency wrote: “Jesus swear our polling station had around 80% proxy votes casted [sic]. If we reject or object to them, we only had 8 brave Punjab policemen in between us and hundreds of people who are just waiting for this kind of opportunity [sic].”

Another complaint ran: “One man one vote changed to ‘one vote with different clothes’.”

The morning after election day, Nagaland-based newspapers also highlighted proxy voting. “Bogus voters, proxy voting rampant,” said the Nagaland Post. The Morung Express agreed. “No free and fair election with proxy voting aplenty,” said a headline in the paper.

Many complained that they had to cast “tendered votes”, a special provision put in place by the Election Commission. Under this provision, a potential voter who finds that someone else has cast a vote in their name can still vote using a ballot paper. The electoral officer has only to ascertain their identity. But this is an option that not many thwarted voters exercise.

Rozelle Mero, a social entrepreneur closely associated with the Clean Election campaign, said there were several instances of people failing to cast their vote as someone else had already voted in their name. “The election has been hijacked by the Election Commission, who should have done more to clean up the bogus entries,” she said. If there had been no proxy voting, the voter turnout would not have exceeded 60%, she claimed.

A change for the better?

When asked about reports of proxy voting, Sinha said that “complaints are being looked into”. His office had received around 40 complaints, he said. “This is besides the complaints that have been received at the district level and by returning officers,” said Sinha.

But Lezo Putsure, the director of YouthNet, a Kohima-based non-profit involved in studying the state’s electoral process, believed that proxy voting had gone down and the Clean Election campaign had worked. “People actually came out to vote unlike earlier times, where there would mostly be proxy voting,” said Putsure.

An editor of a Dimapur-based daily also agreed that the fall in voting percentage was a result of “strict vetting, despite rampant proxy voting”.