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The great leveller

Dimapur/Kohima, Feb. 21: In Dimapur, a man shuttled between two rooms, trying hard to co-ordinate between the two groups of occupants. The scene could well be out of a slapstick comedy.

Only that the occupants here are two rival militant groups and the harried man is the chief agent of a candidate in Nagaland who is trying to co-ordinate between the rivals who are ready to jump at each other's throat but have agreed to be on the same side for the polls. The agent offers a joint meeting but the rebel groups flatly refuse. “This is not a reconciliation meeting,” a militant tells the agent, referring to the Church-led attempt to have reconciliation among factions.

The scene is being replayed across the state although coordination between the cut-throat rivals can be quite a headache for the candidate. These are small hitches, laughs the agent, though he agrees that he does not want to be caught in a crossfire in his own backyard.

The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), formed in 1980, had split once in 1988 and again in 2010 with each group wanting to kill the other for control over Naga minds, territory and resources.

A few years ago, it could not be imagined that rival NSCN factions could fight for the same candidate. Not this time. The election seems to have brought the warring rebels together, a task that even the Church finds it difficult to achieve.

The tragedy is in incidents like the bomb blast in Dimapur on Wednesday not to forget the seizure of arms from the state home minister's convoy on Monday.

Violence can’t be ruled out. Chief minister Neiphiu Rio’s younger brother Zhaleo Rio, an NPF candidate, alleged that his rival candidate Rokonicha's bodyguard had fired at his supporter. Rio denied employing any undergrounds, but an NSCN faction picked up the opponent’s bodyguard and bundled him to their camp.

Under a beach umbrella on the terrace of a palatial house of a candidate, two middle-level “officers” of an NSCN faction fine-tuned their tactics on Tuesday. “What to do, force may have to be used. See, this is our assessment,” one of them said in Nagamese. The employer and candidate, a former government officer was handed over a sheaf of papers neatly listed with names of villages and voters.

Members of all three factions of the NSCN are known to be involved. Khakis and hunter shoes, carbines, Kalashnikovs and the habitual cotton scarves around the neck are for all to see.

“We are not supporting anyone,” a source in the NSCN (I-M) said.

Perhaps this is a mere professional contract like the bahubalees get in the Gangetic plains. Apparently a kilonser (minister), if offered anything less than Rs 5 lakh, “feels insulted”.

A source in the NSCN (Unification or Khole-Kitovi group) said its cadres were supporting candidates close to them. Such commitment matters and, of course, economics.

On the banks of the Chathe here, the money and muscle added, the election is appearing to be a sort of leveller. Not only are different groups’ services requisitioned, a smattering of different tribes in these “service providers” is also recommended. Leaving aside narrow tribal loyalties, usually taken for granted, burly Semas don’t shy at an Angami candidate’s war room and able-bodied Aos or Tangkhuls don’t mind working for a Sema contestant.

In this commercial and political hub at the foothills of Patkai range, candidates expecting pitched battles in the run-up to and on polling day on Saturday have found it pragmatic to engage rival rebel groups with diverse tribal compositions. The diversity fits into Dimapur's pluralistic profile.

The heterogeneity is more common in cosmopolitan Dimapur area. In the five constituencies, the electorate comprises various tribes like Sema, Ao, Angami, Kachari, Yimchungru, Zeliang and Kukis. Congress candidate K.L. Chishi has even a banner in Hindi asking voters, settlers from Rajasthan, Bihar or UP, to vote for him. Elsewhere the composition is more homogenous. The purpose is common.

If candidates are not differentiating among rebels, the rebels reciprocate: they have chosen not to differentiate among political parties. Therefore, NSCN (I-M) gunmen can be seen supporting a Congress candidate though the group is said to traditionally favour regional outfit Naga People’s Front (NPF). On the other hand, many Khaplang group and the Unification members are known to work tirelessly for the NPF.

All three factions deny involvement, but their leaders can hardly stop the boys from supporting fellow relatives who contest polls. Nor can they possibly deny them the opportunity to earn in what is turning out to be one of the most expensive elections held anywhere in India.

One vote can cost up to Rs 15,000 here in addition to the brand new cars gifted to group-influencers. In Nagaland, a village headman or head of the house is still allowed to vote for the entire village or family. On polling day, it will be testing time for booth-level officers.