Elections in Nagaland
Dr. K. Hoshi
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]ndia is the largest democratic country in the world (largest democracy in the world is a misnomer). But how democratic is the Indian elections in Nagaland? The experiences of the last two State general elections, two parliamentary elections and two state by-elections proved that we have a system that didn’t work. It is very sad that elections in Nagaland have become more of political gambling than philosophy. Plato, the great Greek philosopher, while decrying the convention of corruption in political system said; “The ills would never cease until philosophers became rulers or rulers philosophers”. How fitting is this great saying in our time and place! Let us see how democracy works in Nagaland during elections.
There has been always a conflict between the Naga customary laws (or rather jungle laws) and the Representation of People’s Act (RPA), 1951 in every election. RPA has never really worked in Nagaland as jungle laws always took precedence. Customary laws have been blatantly misinterpreted as village or community decisions by majority. Elections in Nagaland have been always under the thumb rule of ‘might is right’. Might come in various forms; most prominent of which are muscle power, money power, gun power and misuse of public organizations’ office. Since 2003 State general election, majority in the village/community/social organization imposing to vote for one particular candidate against the will and wishes of the minority has become the corrupt convention. Such declarations as paid news in local dailies were in total contravention to the principle of secret ballot. It violates the laws of election as enshrined in RPA. Yet, no actions were taken against such candidates or the community making such declaration. The only visible action was taking into account the cost of paid news in the candidate’s expenditure. Punitive actions like disqualification of the contesting candidate and countermanding the election in the particular polling booth for making such declaration should not become a debatable issue but calls for an outright action.
Election observers and micro-observes act only on written complaint from opposing parties and hardly act on their own observations. The objective and purpose of deputing observes and micro-observers were thus defeated. The name observers or micro-observes clearly suggest that they are to act on their own observations and not necessarily wait for written complaints. So long as election observers and micro-observers take their assignments as duty-bound and not the implementing agency of law, it is a national waste to spend so much money on them. India is one hypocrite country where we talk so much about system but soil it on by law makers themselves.
The onus of responsibility to ensure free and fair election rests largely on polling officials. Sadly, the polling officials prefer to practice more on compromise and understanding than act by the rule of law. In recent years, it has become a common practice for polling officials to summon the contesting party representatives a night before the polling day and ask them to strike-out a compromise. The most common compromise formula in Nagaland is either to adopt ‘family head voting’ or ‘village/community head voting’ for the entire voters in a booth. It is grossly undemocratic. ‘One man, one vote’ nowhere finds mention in the discussion. The polling officials are satisfied in whatever form the voting should take place as long as incident-free polling is guaranteed by the representatives. What we observe in every election was that, most genuine voters cast their votes before noon. Three to four hours were thus left open for malpractices or for political party agents to work out the formula for sharing proxy votes. In cases of disagreement, the majority party captures the booth by might. The polling officials instead of acting as per the rule of law, stands helpless and remain mute spectators. Besides, most polling officials have their inclination towards the ruling party. Therefore, the agents of the ruling party always get the edge. So long as the polling officials do not act, the corrupt system is there to stay and no matter what and how much guidelines are issued by the Election Commission, it comes to naught.
The distribution of voter slips by the Booth Level Officers (BLO) a day or two prior to the polling day was absolutely ridiculous because it renders meaningless, the presence of BLOs in the polling booths on polling day. Voter slips should be distributed on spot after verification of the identity. In the just concluded parliamentary election, in one village in 19th Phek Assembly Constituency, over 90% of the voter slips were collected by the Village Council Chairman, Head GB and NPF President of that village and kept in their custody on the contention that all those electorates had received their shares from Local Area Development Fund (LADF). Thanks to the District Returning Officer (DRO) who took prompt action on formal complaint. LADF has nothing to do with election whatsoever but the ruling party shamelessly thinks it is a party fund meant for free distribution without work. The operational guidelines for LADF have been abused by the elected members as though it were their own wealth so much so that a pastor of one influential Baptist church was blessed with rupees ten lakhs every year from LADF for years together. He thanked God and received it in the name of different aliases but against the same project. No wonder there’s a rash to become god man.
In the recently concluded parliamentary election, there were three polling stations in 19th Phek Assembly Constituency which were exclusively manned by women polling officials. CCTV was installed in all those booths. The security within the polling perimeter in the town was also manned by Mahila personnel of IRB. The women polling officials proved their mantle as polling in those stations saw better co-ordination and discipline. Incidentally, the percentage of voter turn-out in those all-women polling stations ranged between 40 to 55% only while in others, 75 to 80% was on the lower side despite distinctly low turn-out. This went on to prove that either women polling officials were more efficient or the installation of CCTV had done its own magic. Proxy voting was the only logical explanation for the wide discrepancy in percentage of turn-out between polling booths with CCTV and without CCTV. Someone had rightly said that the Nagas don’t fear God but the machine. Thus CCTV installation in all the polling stations seems the only remedy to frighten the overzealous Naga voters. In future elections, it will be good to notify the political parties of all-women polling stations so as to enable them to appoint women polling agents.
For the first time in Nagaland State, Electorate Photo Identity Card (EPIC) was used in this parliamentary election. The nation had invested thousands of crores of money on this nation-wide exercise. But going by the experience of the just concluded election, the value of EPIC was not fully realized given the fact that proxy voters could still cast multiple votes with others’ EPIC. Irony of all was that, to act against proxy voting, the polling officials entirely left the voter identification to the polling agents and depended only on objection of the polling agents. With EPIC in place, the polling officials have no alibi to shy away from the responsibility of checking and cross-checking the identity of an electorate. Election system in India has failed largely because of indifferent polling officials. The electorates may attempt for any malpractice but it is the polling officials who should apply the rule of law. The question of proxy voting did not arise should the Presiding Officer gives a ruling against it. It appears that the polling officials give undue emphasis on high turn-out percentage. It must not be forgotten that the low turn-out in those polling booths with CCTV were because the electoral roll had many double and multiple names. It is not only illegal but also ethically and morally wrong to turn a blind eye to the established law. There should not be conflict of interest between conscience and an alibi for threat to life because law is there to protect the polling officials from all dangers. Exemplary punitive action needs to be meted out on erring polling officials.
The church’s clean election campaign undoubtedly did some good like controlling mass feast. Unfortunately, it couldn’t do much on free flow of liquor and money. In many places the church leaders were accused of distributing money and doing both overt and covert canvassing for one particular candidate. In my constituency, there was eye witnesses report that a Pastor of one particular church had summoned the teachers of a church run school to one politician’s house and solicited their support with attractive promises of help. It is obvious that in such engagement money would be the only language. People with liquor were caught red-handed by law enforcement agencies and identities of culprits were established. In one polling station in one constituency of Phek district, one prominent public leader was seen casting proxy votes five times excluding his own vote. Yet, the church didn’t consider it ethically and morally wrong, much less a sin, to be caught with liquor or proxy voting. If the church is serious in clean election, education alone is not enough. It should exercise its decree. What is ethically and morally wrong could not be sinless. There’s a need for the church to recast on its hi-fi campaign strategies. When election comes, there’s a swarm of pollster prophets looking for their vulnerable preys to make the most out of it. Has the church lost control over them?
Since 2003 State general election, the Naga national workers had played a major role in deciding the fate of many candidates during elections. It is an open secret that none could deny it. Whether their roles were direct (by using gun power) or indirect (by soliciting votes for one candidate), it didn’t make any difference. Vote casting is just a symbolic expression of inner will participation. Indian election is for Indian citizens only. Therefore, those Naga national workers who had participated in Indian elections; whether by personally exercising his adult suffrage or by asking his family and friends or coerced others to vote for one or other candidate/party; had forfeited his right as a national worker by betraying the national principle. But do we have national workers with national principle? With or without gun, the participation of Naga national workers in Indian elections will always be welcomed by the GoI because that is exactly what they want.
The list of election evils in Nagaland is endless. So much for democracy in a Christian State!