During the campaign for the Assembly elections in Nagaland, the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance toured the state armed with the slogan “Change is coming”. Change has, quite literally, been the burden of the BJP’s song this campaign season. In Meghalaya, the party had singer Lou Majaw crooning “Time for change, time for the BJP”. 

A day after election results were declared on Saturday, it is clear the BJP will come to power in Nagaland. Nothing else is certain.

The alliance forged by the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party and the BJP has staked claim to power, helped by the Janata Dal (United) and an independent candidate. The new coalition is slated to have 32 seats in the 60-seat Assembly, with three-time chief minister Neiphiu Rio set to return to the post. But on Sunday evening, incumbent chief minister TR Zeliang of the Naga People’s Front refused to resign and said he would talk to BJP president Amit Shah about government formation. The Naga People’s Front has emerged as the single largest party with 27 seats.

More things change

Neither option portends much change. If the BJP and the Naga People’s Front manage to stitch together an alliance, this government will look almost identical to the last one. The BJP has increased its tally from one seat in the 2013 elections to 12 in these, but it was also an ally in the Naga People’s Front government that has ruled the state since 2003. By the end of the last government’s tenure, the BJP had four legislators in the Assembly.

If the BJP goes with Rio as chief minister, the government will not look radically different. Rio was chief minister for 11 years as part of the Naga People’s Front and is held responsible for most of its maladies. If the Naga People’s Front was tied up with infighting, these feuds began with and, many believe, were fuelled by Rio.

If the outgoing government is associated with corruption, many of the scams began during Rio’s tenure as chief minister. In a government formed by the BJP and the Nationalist Democratic People’s Party, more legislators will have declared criminal cases against them than in the previous dispensation, a survey by the Association for Democratic Reforms found.

Voters in Nagaland were offered only the illusion of change.

Incumbent Chief Minister TR Zeliang of the Naga People's Front with Narendra Modi. Zeliang has refused to resign and said he would talk to BJP president Amit Shah about government formation. (Credit: PTI)
Incumbent Chief Minister TR Zeliang of the Naga People's Front with Narendra Modi. Zeliang has refused to resign and said he would talk to BJP president Amit Shah about government formation. (Credit: PTI)

Shadow boxing

In a state where voting choices depend more on individual leaders than on the party, it was never a battle of ideologies. It was about having recognisable faces who could appeal to the electorate. As several candidates have openly admitted, it was also about which party had the most monetary heft.

The coalition forged by the BJP and the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party boasted several heavyweights. It also had the lucre of Central funds, so vital in a poor state dependent on money from Delhi. Besides, both parties seem to have had deep pockets. If the BJP ties up with Rio, this is going to be a rich government. The survey by the Association for Democratic Reforms shows 75% of its legislators would have assets valued above Rs 1 crore.

Party organisation also seems to have played a role. The BJP state unit has expanded across Nagaland, recruiting new cadre and putting local units in place since last year. This might have helped the party’s impressive strike rate: 12 out of 20 seats contested, or 60%. It might also explain why the Naga People’s Front, with well-established networks in the state and a presence at the grassroots level, managed to hold its own against the new coalition.

The Hindutva spectre

The main ideological battle between the two camps was fought on the issue of religion. The BJP, with its Hindutva baggage, was fighting elections in a Christian state that is fiercely protective of its beliefs and practices. In Meghalaya, the party’s anti-Christian image restricted it to two seats, in spite of an exuberant campaign. In Nagaland, the politically influential Naga Baptist Church Council warned against voting for parties with “communal agendas” and was echoed by the Naga People’s Front.

Unlike in Tripura and Meghalaya, however, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – the BJP’s ideological parent – did not run a visible campaign. While the Sangh is believed to be active in a few pockets of Nagaland, the state BJP distanced itself from it. The saffron party was at pains to assure voters that all its candidates were Christian and that beef consumption was not going to be a bone of contention. It threw in the promise of subsidised trips to Jerusalem – home to some of the world’s holiest Christian sites – for voters who were not convinced.

But the Naga People’s Front seems have been shadow boxing on religion as well, since it is prepared to tie up with the party it warned voters against.

An Opposition

The only genuine change these elections offered was the prospect of an Opposition. Since 2015, all legislators in Nagaland have sat on the treasury benches, merging with the ruling coalition through defections or lending outside support. Nagaland became the only state where the Congress and the BJP sat on the same side of the aisle. It created a distorted polity where ideological distinctions were blurred and where government could commit excesses unchecked.

Now the Naga People’s Front contemplates going back to the BJP, though a section of the old guard, led by party president Liezietsu Shurhozelie, is said to be against it. If the BJP does not abandon its partnership with Rio’s party, all three will band together in another lopsided government. A thriving Opposition, such a vital part of democratic checks and balances, will remain a pipe dream for Nagaland.