Driven by civil society, student bodies and the church, Nagaland has adopted a US-style presidential campaign format to grill poll candidates and hold them accountable.
In a bid to democratise the electoral system, civil society and student body organisations in Nagaland have organised events where candidates from each party address a gathering of voters in towns, district headquarters and villages on a stage called the “Common Platform.”
Based on the US-style presidential election campaign, where candidates address their policy positions and promises, this “Common Platform” is part of a state-wide, citizen-led initiative called the “Clean Election Campaign,” which is also backed by the influential Baptist Church.
What spurred this initiative was the discontent among voters about the influence of money power, and the inability of elected representatives to even fulfil basic development-related promises. In 2012, a year before the last elections, organisers of the Clean Election Campaign had come up with the idea of Common Platform to address the proliferation of money power in the electoral system.
“One of the primary reasons, we realised, was the candidates were going door-to-door, and this facilitated the distribution of money. So, we decided we would begin Common Platform, where civil society and other organisations would organise one public meeting, where candidates would come, and tell people about their policies. The Nagaland Baptist Church Council and the Clean Election Campaign made a resolution to this effect,” said a leading member of Youthnet, a non-profit comprising of young Naga professional dedicated to youth affairs, to The Indian Express.
In the following year, the organisers conducted Common Platform events in a few constituencies, but the money spent by candidates, according to Youthnet, amounted to Rs 980 crore. Today, there is one Common Platform set up in most constituencies. The process of setting up these public meetings and gatherings has not been smooth, and both civil society and student bodies have worked in the interim years to build up public support for these initiatives. Now, these Common Platform events have become a regular feature of poll campaigns attended by most candidates.
“In 2013, we decided that we would back the Clean Election Campaign. In 2016, we had another meeting and decided to take up Common Platform seriously. We visited every constituency and met leaders in all the big towns, Mokukchung, Dimapur and Kohima, and then it was held successfully this year, backed by the student body and supported by the Church. Close to 800 people attended,” said Limakum Jamir, an adviser to the Lampangkong Students Federation, to The Indian Express.
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Unlike US-style presidential election campaign programmes, the Nagaland version doesn’t allow candidates to interject, allowing each one of them to say their piece in the time allotted to them. What this initiative hopes to inculcate among voters is the habit of documenting all the promises candidates make in their address and later verify whether they have followed through on them.
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For a state, where basic development needs remain unfulfilled, this is a seemingly progressive step. However, questions remain whether this has significantly influenced voter behaviour, especially in the rural areas. The challenges ahead are immense. According to recent data released by the Association of Democratic Reforms, 59% of the candidates have mentioned assets worth crores. Nonetheless, this is a step in the right direction.