Winds of Change? A Critical Reflection on the Recent Lok Sabha Elections and its Outcome in Nagaland

 Dr Rhelo Kenye

In an interview, following the declaration of the 2024 Lok Sabha Elections, MK Venu, founding editor of The Wire, described a couple of his key takeawayson the outcome of the elections in the following manner: “Indian democracy has now progressed from 56 inches to 36 inches. And my second takeaway is that I would like to see now how a non-biological being deals with coalition partners who are biological beings.” (Marked by sarcasm in both, we can infer thatVenu’s first takeawayalludes to how theexpression, ‘chhappan inch kichati’/ ‘56-inch chest’ would now change with the results; an expression which Narendra Modihas used in many of his speeches, implying a toneof ‘muscular’ confidence and courage).On the same subject, but from a different and more personal context, a friend texted his summation of the election result on WhatsApp as, “A victory that feels like defeat and a defeat that feels like victory.” These analyses are but a couple of instances that reflect the general mood of the people, and of the flurry of discourses that have emerged post-election – one that broadly suggests that democracy is still alive in India; one that seems to have given a ray of hope for the citizens of the world’s largest democracy. 

Drawing on this basic summary, as setting the tone for what follows,what I seek toexplore in this piece is on the questionof how this very facet of ‘democracy is still alive’ plays out in the contemporary Naga context. That besides a current atmosphere of seeming relief and elation amongst the Naga populace in tandem with the larger Indian experience,over the hopeful winds of changein electoral politics, what are some of the deeper observations and implications that we can draw from the recent national event? Put it differently: As much as the election results of Nagaland’s lone Lok Sabha seat convey a series of messages, what I am interested to examine here is on the possible question of what the same results also do not say at a cursory level. This shall be done byrevisiting and expounding on a couple of intricately connected facets. However, before progressing further with the discussion, I would like to make this (obvious) disclaimer that this piece in anyway does not intend to provide a holistic or prescriptive summation of the issue at hand; nor is it written by a political analyst in the conventional sense of the term. Rather, it can be treated as one of the ways in which we can critically reflect on the Lok Sabha Elections (henceforth, LS Elections) and its outcome in the Naga context. It can also be seen as a reflection from the lenses of a geographically and experientially distanced location –a position, that I believe, could provide a certain degree of ‘objectivity’.

Returning to thepoint made earlier, the analysis here shall take into account a couple of intricately connected factors, among others, namely: (a) the nature and location of this year’s election in relation to elections held in the past –state Assembly elections in particular, and (b) the locally manifested notion of consensus in the context of the modern nation state and traditional village republic dynamic. First, with regard to the nature and location of this year’s LS elections in Nagaland state, a critical question that can be asked is whether the results accurately reflect the narrative of optimism and hope being espoused by many across public and private conversations; across social media platforms. Is there a sincere change in the mindset and approach of the Naga people towards the policies, ideologies, and performance of the former (which is also the current) government at the Centre, with repercussions in the local state level? Did issue-based questions, like the broad question of religion for instance, really come to the forefront in determining the way in which the Naga electoral public gave their mandate, or was it just something that happened with the flow? 

These seemingly trivial questions do not take anything away from the votes casted by the electorate;nor do they downplay in any way the mobilization and collective efforts put in by the political parties involved, in the local context of the state.Rajiv Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra,roughly translated as “Unite India March”, could also be an important point of discussion in this regard. However, from a different lens, the same questions are raised to provoke us to think if the same outcome would have been possible if the nature of the LS election was as ‘intimate’ and invested as the state assembly elections; one marred by systemic corruption to say the least.By this, I mean to inquire whether the Naga public would have had the same ‘freedom’ and ‘capacity’ to vote as per their conscience (to put it loosely) for a ‘positive change’,and against a subversive dominant religious ideology, if the LS elections have had the same degree of tangible intimacy and commitment that the same Naga public have towards the state assembly elections; or for that matter, if the ‘circumstances’ had been different. Quite loosely used, ‘Intimacy’ here denotes the close connection that a voter often establisheswith a candidate and his or her party for reasons like familial, clan, locality, tribal affiliations, among others. Would the LS Elections, as it turned out, bear the same result if all of Nagaland’s 60 Assembly Constituencies were LS seats instead; where the reasons mentioned in the preceding sentence, among others, would have certainly come into play? The pattern of voting, I argue, would then have been quite different. It would have sidelined party ideologies and issue-based politics (if at all there are) in favor of some of these reasons cited. 

One may argue that the line of reasoning postulated here is nothing more than mere hypothetical speculation. However, like it or not, it does not stop us from critically reflecting on the questions posed; to see the ‘behavior’ of the Naga voting public over a longer stretch of time. To summarize the discussion, one can therefore observe that the recently held LS election in Nagaland and its outcome was and is in a certain sense marked by an active yet ‘distanced’ participation of the voting public, instead of the sense of immediacy and intimacy that is largely manifested in state assembly elections. It showed a form of detachment but also one of investment at the same time –detachment from thetypical ‘intimate’ Naga way of participation in elections where the voter goes all out to ensure that his or her candidate wins, and investment (at least for now) underscoring a desire for change against certain existing ideologies and modes of governance. In a more illustrative sense, the discussion here can also be surmised as something like: Because the voter did not really have much to lose, because there was nothing much at stake like it usually does for the more local-level elections like the state assembly election (and perhaps the upcoming ULB elections), because there was no candidate (with the exception of the three candidates) from one’s locality who was nominated to fight ‘Superman’, it became comparatively ‘easier’ for the voter to veer towards change and hope that is being espoused.The question, if not the takeaway in this regard would be whether the Naga voting public can sustain and even repeat the ability to exercise this same form of detachment and investment that is being articulated here over ‘x’ number of elections in the future. Or, are the other elections in the state altogether a different ball game? The upcoming ULB elections, which seems to be brewing quite a lot of excitement already, might have certain things to offer in this regard. However, to sum up this point of discussion, it suggests that a certain degree of detachment or ‘disinterestedness’, from a different sense, is not too bad for Naga electoral politics. 

Secondly, the recent LS Election in the state has also provoked us to think further on the notion of ‘consensus’, a term which in a way has been overtly used in contemporary Naga society; one that has become almost clichéd. On this, we are already familiar with the practice of the scores of press releases that come out during election season(s) in Nagaland, where members of a village, a clan, community etc., come out with declarations of certain candidate(s) as their consensus candidate for that particular election. This time around though, the idea and use of consensus played out in quite a different way when the PDA (Peoples Democratic Alliance), consisting of eight political parties and independent MLAs in the opposition-less Nagaland Legislative Assembly, fielded their ‘consensus’ candidate. (Again, as a disclaimer, providing this bit of information here is solely for the purpose of evaluating the systemic process of election at large; it does not, in any manner, intend to personally critique or defame any individual candidate). The interestingoutcome, even ironic, as some in social media platforms have commented, is that the consensus candidate representing the representatives who represent the people, the 60 assembly constituencies of Nagaland, failed to garner the consensus of the very people who elected them. Thus, what does this say about the whole democratic and electoral process? While some may argue that it reflects the unpredictable and flexible nature of democracy, what happened this time tells us that the use of the word consensus does not always guarantee consensus.It also leads us to ask if the weight of the term ‘consensus’ in today’s political parlance is gradually dwindling, unlike a very vibrant and robust notion of the same that we had (hopefully we still do) in our traditional village republic settings then.

Further, discussion around the notion of consensus draws us to critically examine the related question of legitimacy. While it is beyond the scope of this article to dwell at length on the legal and technical facets of a comprehensive term such as this, legitimacy in a simpler sense and mainly within a socio-political structure imply validity and recognition of a government or an organization by the people within the same government, organization, or structure. Along these lines, the LS Election results in Nagaland opens up the avenue for one to think about the critical and difficult question of who holds the legitimacy to use a term like ‘consensus’ at multiple levels.As indicated above, the elected representatives of the opposition-less Nagaland Legislative Assembly failed to garner the votes, the ‘recognition’ of the people to get their consensus candidate elected to the lower house of the Indian Parliament. Thus, in the specific context of this election, the fact that the people voted for a candidate from a party with zero seats in the State Legislative Assembly complicates this very notion of ‘legitimacy’, one that the current elected representatives are/were supposed to have. On the contrary, one may argue that this is what elections and democracy are simply all about –in simple terms: to elect or remove a candidate or party whenever elections come. However, given the reality of the political scenario in Nagaland and the kind of control that a certain politician and party has had over the last one and half decade, such a counter argument is but quite lame and unconvincing. And speaking of how consensus operates at multiple levels, one can observe that in the present-day Naga context, there are also instances where consensus at the local level is often achieved by threats of excommunication from the clan, village etc.

To stretch the discussion on the intricate relationship between consensus and legitimacy, one can also think of how the LS election results in the Outer Manipur constituency penned out this year. Three Nagas entered the race as intending candidates, of which one was endorsed by many of the apex Naga tribal organizations in Manipur as their consensus candidate. However, these tribal bodies, which are or were supposed to garner the legitimacy of their respective members were not quite able to achieve the same, as their consensus candidate suffered defeat by quite a comprehensive margin. Again, this observation in the context of Manipur, opens up a complex network of historical and socio-political realities and implications, one that is beyond the scope of what this piece seeks to address; but what one can see in the immediate setting of this discussion is that the whole meaning, value and purpose of consensus and legitimacy seemed to have completely lost their weightage.Consensus, as indicated above, has become more of a clichéd and futile term than one that is actually implemented.  It takes us back to the question: Why didn’t the electoral public vote to power the consensus candidate of their legitimate representatives; of those who are already in power?Among other plausible reasons, one can return to and connect with the observation made earlier, that the detached nature of the LS elections, devoid of immediacy and investment by the local populace, have rendered the related notions of consensus and legitimacy virtually invalid. 

Thus, reflection on this year’s election through analyses on the two broad areas that have been attempted in this piece indicate that despite the message of “democracy is still alive” being propagated, itentails a baggage of other complicated facets that define electoral politics and democracy in contemporary Naga society. In a significant sense, the whole point of discussion in this write-up reinforces the tensions – the ruptures and continuities – between pre-existing political practices of the traditional Naga village republicand the present-day democratic and electoral practices of the modern nation state. This is an observation that is espousedand deliberated at length by Jelle JP Wouters, amongst others, in his works like, “Performing Democracy in Nagaland”, and “Nagas as a Society Against Voting”. (One could also look up Democracy in Nagaland: Tribes, Traditions, Tensions, a volume edited by Wouters and ZhotoTunyi). 

To conclude, it may be mentioned that some deliberate generalizations were made for the sake of analysis; in addition to the fact that several related factors were also not taken into account. Further, the tone of this piece might have appeared quite unenthusiastic for some,against the grain and current dominant narrative of optimism doing the rounds, as mentioned.

 However,in a certain sense and as indicated at the start, it hassought to explore on facets that would not have been probably discussed; to provoke us to weigh our immediate reactions to the election results with due caution. It is an attempt for the well-informed Naga citizen, young Nagas in particular, to think deeper on the incumbent questions, take the discussion forward and work out plausible ways in the same spirit and aspiration for positive change.

Rhelo Kenye teaches at the Centre for Comparative Literature, University of Hyderabad, as a Guest Faculty.