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Religion in Nagaland poll talk but voters want jobs and development

BJP’s promise of free trips to Jerusalem to 50-odd senior citizens every year and Congress’ subsidised travel to the Christian holy land underline a shift in state’s politics , where religion is playing a major role for the first time, experts say.

india Updated: Feb 25, 2018 22:02 IST
Dhrubo Jyoti
Dhrubo Jyoti
Hindustan Times, Kohima/Dimapur
Nagaland,Nagaland polls,Dimapur
Union defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Union MoS for home Kiren Rijiju (second from right) at the party’s manifesto release in Dimapur this month. (PTI File Photo)

As elections approach in Nagaland, the popular discourse in the state is dominated by one question: How much will religion influence the polls in a state where tribal and local allegiances have traditionally dominated a voter’s choice?

The election campaign was roiled by competing promises from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which pledged free trips to Jerusalem to 50-odd senior citizens every year and the Congress, which announced subsidised travel to the Christian holy land — in an apparent bid to woo Christian voters, who form 88% of the population in the state.

But the promises appeared to have not made much headway and voters said their focus remained on development, jobs and infrastructure development. “We need more jobs so that we are not forced to travel to Delhi or Mumbai...” said Lily Angami, a student in Dimapur.

Experts say the Jerusalem promises underline a shift in the state’s politics, where religion is playing a major role for the first time. “In the state, people vote more on tribal and party allegiances but that is now slowly changing. The church is playing a major role,” said D Kuolie, a professor at the University of Nagaland.

The Nagaland Baptist Church Council, which represents 1,500-odd churches in the state, has publicly expressed its reservations about the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is the BJP’s ideological mentor. It also feels that the promises are empty rhetoric.

“I personally don’t feel it will have any impact in electoral process for either the BJP or the Congress. I feel we cannot have a personalised scheme for the Christian majority,” said NBCC general secretary Zelhou Keyho.

Locals point out that the state has faced an exodus of young people amid many stalled projects, poor condition of roads and industrial infrastructure and shrinking avenues for jobs.

“Our people want infrastructure. We don’t want anything else... We can pray here. There is no need to go to Jerusalem,” said Theja Theriah, a leader of the influential Chakhesang tribe.

Both of the main parties in Nagaland — the Naga People’s Front and the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) — say the promises won’t make any difference. “Why should we go to Jerusalem? Why not organise pilgrimage in Nagaland or anywhere else in India?” asked Sebastian Zumvu of the NPF.

The BJP defended itself, saying the promise was part of a broader plan for senior citizens. “Every Christian aspires to visit the holy land, which was not possible for everyone. This is why out party decided to give special concession...” said V Lhoungu, state president of the party.

The Congress also justified the promise. “We know that a majority of Nagas are Christians, keeping this in view, the promise was made in such a way to help the general public,” said Moa Imchen, a leader of the Congress.

First Published: Feb 25, 2018 22:01 IST