Election cycle in Nagaland

G Kanato Chophy

After WW2, upset at how many falsely sought post-war reparations, Sir Charles Pawsey, the last Deputy Commissioner of the Naga Hills District, British India, is said to have remarked, “the first Naga casualty of the war was their honesty.” Recently, a leading Naga theologian whose grandfather had served under Pawsey told me that elections in Nagaland have reached “demonic proportions.” Somewhere between “false reparations” and “demonic proportions,” we, Nagas, all grew up.

Every five years, I join a cohort of some Naga teachers and preachers pulling our hair out in despair when the state Legislative Assembly election comes. It is a time of great existential crisis to our vocation.

Forget the locality thugs, young men who had studied Gandhi and Tolstoy in classrooms go on a rampage, pelting stones and burning down cars. However, these unruly youths are far better than their successful counterparts funding the quinquennial mayhem. The most successful ones, who ironically write moving essays on ethics in competitive exams, amass questionable wealth over time and contest elections for more fame and power.

The preachers’ case is far more pathetic than that of the teachers. Their occasional Sunday sermons on corruption and greed come to nought. Even surreal, during the election season, their congregation retires from church life, their deacons go away on unofficial election tours, and the prophets who regularly forecast death and pestilences stop short of prophesying about the erring candidates.

The case of the political class is inexplicable. I had heard the best sermon on the prophet Isaiah from a politician who would shame the best seminarians. Lack of knowledge or education is not the issue. The woes of Naga politics may be due to a disease of the character that afflicts all of us.

Amid pervasive suspicions in the state, I admire the ideological honesty of one of the most popular Naga politicians in recent times, who said, “RSS is a brand of hope, a brand of nationalism.”More power to him! I can only hope the charismatic politician doesn’t say “Rahul Gandhi zindabad” when the Congress Party comes to power in New Delhi. The state needs politics based on ideologies rather than narrow tribal, clan, and village politics.

The murky election culture takes a toll on the Naga role models. I know a public intellectual and much sought-after speaker in church conferences and youth festivals who goes all-in during elections to support his candidate, infamous for booth capturing in the village. Post-elections, he'll be back to the public speaking circuit, speaking out against the “rotten” political class, rampant corruption, and tribalism.

Even the finest role models who contest elections are sucked into the maelstrom, using money and muscle power to win at any cost. Before elections, they speak out against corruption, youth unemployment, and pathetic affairs. But most penniless “clean” candidates would have entered through the broad gate if they had the means and resources.

The chances of having leaders as justice crusaders and champions of the poor in Nagaland’s politics are very slim. There’s sometimes a thin line between ego trip and self-sacrifice. The best thing that people can hope for is a strong opposition in the Legislative Assembly, which has been found wanting in the state for many decades.

Nobody wants to be losing the side, but a healthy democracy requires the role of a constructive opposition party. The noted historian of modern Africa, Martin Meredith, rightly notes that one-party rule is a curse to Africa. The state of affairs in the Democratic Republic of Congo comes to mind, but the current trend in Naga politics and society tells us we are another Congo in the making. We might as well bid farewell to the South Korean or Singapore model of democracy and development.

The consensus is that the church’s Clean Election Campaign is a sham. But the church is not wholly inept or lackadaisical. They are not merely up against the local thugs, power-mongering politicians, or wayward flock but against the greatest human malady: the darkness of the human’s heart. The Hebrew prophet Jeremiah rightly diagnosed the Naga condition some 2500 five hundred years ago: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”

My only wish is that the churches do not quote Jeremiah 29: 11, “For I know the plans I have for you...” for the winning candidates when they return to the church for thanksgiving prayer after months of vice and mayhem.

This writer is no better, though I may sneer at fellow citizens for selling their votes cheaply for a few thousand rupees. If I am offered a high position, lakhs of rupees, or if soon my politically-inclined sibling decides to contest for elections and winning means only through money power, I am still determining whether I'll make the right choice. I'll have to constantly battle with this harlot heart of mine.

This election cycle was no different from other years, barring listening to ridiculous political party songs and gloating at my fellow advanced tribes for stone pelting and street fights. After the dust settles, things will return to normalcy, and for another five years, we will all complain about corruption, bad governance, and lawlessness. So, until the next election cycle, it is Sisyphus and his rock. 

G Kanato Chophy is the author of Christianity and Politics in Tribal India: Baptist Missionaries and Naga Nationalism (2021).