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Enter the turncoats: Nagaland sees poll battle of a different flavour

Some experts say that Nagaland’s earlier rule of people having long-term allegiances is changing fast.

india Updated: Feb 26, 2018 12:47 IST
Dhrubo Jyoti
Dhrubo Jyoti
Hindustan Times, Kohima

Nestled in the Japfu hills, Nagaland’s capital Kohima has been witness to many battles, the most famous of which was a turning point in the second World War in 1944.

These days, though, the town is witnessing a battle of a different kind, one that mirrors the most unpredictable election in the northeastern state for years.

The sitting MLA, and the state’s forest minister, Neikiesalie Nicky Kire, is a popular doctor who polled more than 60% of the votes in the last election – bettering his performance from 2008 when he polled around 56% of the votes. The 66-year-old is widely respected and has ties with the influential Angami tribe, which traditionally calls Kohima its home.

But here’s the catch: Kire is one of the several influential Naga politicians who jumped ship from the Naga People’s Front (NPF), which has ruled the state since 2003, to the newly formed National Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP), which is fighting the polls in an alliance with the BJP on the basis of a 40-20 seat-sharing pact.

The ruling NPF has a formidable ground-level organisation and deep roots in a state where tribal loyalties often determine the winner in a constituency.

But the party also faces allegations of corruption and lack of development – in the capital itself, roads often disappear into ditches and the hills are dotted with decaying semi-built structures.

Many of Kohima’s young have left the city in search of jobs.

The party president, Shurhozelie Liezietsu, has tried to stem anti-incumbency by nominating fresh faces – just 17 of the 48 sitting MLAs have been given tickets (10 MLAs joined NPF from Congress after the 2013 polls). This purge is the reason behind Kire’s exit to the NDPP, claims NPF’s Sebastian Zumvu.

“Kire joining NDPP cannot hurt us, we are better off without quite a lot of them. We are confident about our candidate (Tseilhoutuo Rhutso),” he added.

The NDPP, on the other hand, is banking on the popularity of three-time chief minister Neiphiu Rio, who quit his position in 2014 to go to the Lok Sabha, and joined the NDPP just a month before the polls.

“We are confident of victory because Nicky Kire has been a helpful and effective leader,” said TL Merry of the NDPP.

Some experts say that Nagaland’s earlier rule of people having long-term allegiances is changing fast. “Politicians are now switching parties very often…so people are now looking at the person, the candidate,” said N Venu, a professor at the University of Nagaland.

There is another important factor in a state where 88% of the population is Christian: the Church, which has expressed reservations about the BJP and its ideological mentor, the RSS. “The people know that the BJP has a strong hold at the Centre but, at the same time, the perception of Christian persecution might hurt the candidate,” said D Kuolie, a professor at the University of Nagaland.

At the end of the day, the story of Kohima’s election, and that of Nagaland, might also be decided after the polls are done. After all, the NPF continues to be a part of the NDA and Zumvu hinted that in case his party doesn’t cross the majority mark, it wouldn’t mind taking the BJP’s support.

“We have been opposed to the Congress for decades… we might reconsider our association with BJP as and when required….we are not enemies with any party.”

First Published: Feb 24, 2018 22:32 IST