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The political economy of a Nagaland election

In Nagaland, there is almost a contract between voters and aspiring representatives: since you won’t do much between elections, we want benefits during elections

Nagaland Election 2018 Updated: Feb 09, 2018 15:43 IST
Prashant Jha
Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a festival in Kisama village on the outskirts of Kohima in Nagaland.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a festival in Kisama village on the outskirts of Kohima in Nagaland.(PTI File Photo)

“Four crore,” he said, describing his poll expense in 2013. “Of that, Rs2.8 crore was from my pocket. I got the rest from friends and family. My constituency has fewer than 2,5000 people. Yet, I came second.”

In a state in which political defections are the norm rather than exception, he had moved since the last election to a new party. He is once again preparing to contest in the Nagaland state assembly polls, slated for February 27.

“The lesson from last time is simply that my rival spent more than I did. I need to spend more — probably double, in the range of Rs7 or 8 crore.”

While a significant section of Naga civil society and political opinion has asked for a ‘solution’ to the larger Naga political issue before the polls, the Centre has made it clear that elections will be held. While discussing polls, the most common refrain one hears in the state is that money will have a great bearing on the outcome.

Elections everywhere in India are expensive affairs, and political finance is non-transparent. But in Nagaland, this seems to have assumed a different dimension with direct purchase of votes, turning around the logic of democracy where elected representatives are supposed to work for constituents once they win.

Here, as a party leader put it, there is almost a contract between voters and aspiring representatives: since you won’t do much between elections, we want benefits during elections. To tackle such malpractices, the Nagaland Baptist Church Council has started a ‘Clean Election Campaign’ and the Election Commission is strengthening its monitoring mechanisms.

Given the illegality of the practice, most interlocutors wished to remain anonymous.

The mechanics of vote-buying

He won as an independent in the last election and admitted the average cost per constituency was between Rs6-8 crore. What are the key expenditure sub-heads? “The first is direct purchase of votes. Households are given cash, depending on the number of people per household. It could be Rs10,000 for, say, a family of four or five.”

But this, he said, was a “gamble”.

“They could take the money and vote for someone else; they could take money from more than one candidate. It is a risk, but all of us have to take it. Since elections are so micro and the constituencies so small, you usually know who is voting where.”

The second key expense is paying off influential clan leaders — Nagaland has several tribes and sub clans — who control a substantial number of votes. “I may offer an elder who has 100 votes a few lakhs. He may tell me he’s getting Rs5 lakh from another candidate. I then make a counter offer.”

The final key expense, often seen in elections elsewhere, is an inducement in kind. “Giving bikes and cars to young supporters ends up costing a fair bit. And then there is the food and drink.”

Nagaland has prohibition, yet there is rampant illegal distribution of alcohol. During elections, it becomes more expensive.

“A bottle costing Rs140 goes for Rs500. And people start demanding a bottle each day for 15 days in the run-up to elections. And then you organise feasts,” explained the independent politician. “But it is fine. It is all worth it.”

The voter-politician contract

“It is worth it for politicians,” says Kesosul Christopher Ltu, president of Naga Student Federation, the umbrella organisation of student unions in the state, “because they use the expenses during the elections to do nothing after elections”.

Ltu says, “MLAs get development funds. But a lot of expenditure is skimmed off. Their excuse is voters have already taken money during elections. But voters really get a very, very small slice of the cake. The cake is eaten up by the political elite here.”

A local journalist has a similar explanation.

“There is little governance. The political elite disappears for the most part. This is the only opportunity for voters to extract something. It is now a vicious cycle.”

Officially, political leaders say Nagaland is not unique. A Kikon, spokesperson of the ruling Naga People’s Front, said, “If you compare it to elections in South India, it is not expensive. Yes, we cannot deny there are expenses involved. But it is not fair to allege that every Naga household is subject to purchase. They do vote for principles, leaders, candidates.”

‘Ethical and informed voting’

Abhijit Sinha, chief electoral officer of Nagaland, admits there is a problem. “There have been a lot of complaints about high expenditure and monetary inducements. We are aware of the matter.”

To deal with it, Sinha says the EC has adopted a two-pronged approach this time. “We are strengthening our regulatory and monitoring mechanisms. There will be a substantial increase in the number of Election Expenditure Observers. We will have over 90 check-posts and a minimum of three flying squads per constituency.” Sinha also said the other component was focusing on behavourial change through voter orientation camps to encourage “ethical and informed voting”.

Privately, leaders remain cynical that initiatives like Clean Election Campaign or the EC’s efforts will have much impact.

A BJP strategist for the region said, “It is a ritual to give money during elections. Giving it is no guarantee of victory but not giving it means defying the ritual and losing for sure. Voters and politicians have reached an arrangement, a compromise.” In the easternmost corner of India, this compromise reflects distortions in Indian democracy.