The Telegraph
Thursday , February 21 , 2013
Since 1st March, 1999
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Right to vote, not choice

Changki (Mokokchung), Feb. 20: Atu Pongen of Changki village in Mokokchung district will cast her vote on February 23 along with the rest of Nagaland in exercise of her right to franchise.

What she will not be able to do, however, is exercise her mind on which candidate to vote for. The right to choose is no longer hers for the Village has usurped it and she can only enter the polling booth and press the button of consensus.

“I can’t vote according to my choice,” she said. “I have to do what the village decides or I may face punishment,” she said uneasily.

She, however, clamped up when asked about the nature of punishment that she may face if she chooses to differ in the privacy of the polling booth. Sources, however, said the punishment could amount to ostracism.

It is not only about freedom of choice being stifled. When it comes to elections in Nagaland, many may not be even required to actually vote and emerge from the polling booths with the black dot on their fingers — the mark of a democracy in practice — because a few individuals would have performed their quinquennal pilgrimage on their behalf; they could be the head of the family or village council chief or some others in position.

It is this practice many want to see the end of. Hence, there are more and bigger hoardings that cry out “your vote, your right,” than those of candidates in the countryside. It is part of the clean election campaign launched by the Church and other civil society groups. It is just this possibility of a one-man-many-votes situation emerging that has Congress candidate and sitting MLA from Jangpetkong constituency in Mokokchung district, I. Imkong, worried. More so, because Changki, which falls in this constituency, has this time already decided to back E.T. Sunup, who is also from the village, instead of Imkong, who has won for the last two terms.

Similarly, two other big villages — Waromong and Khar — of the constituency have also come out in support of their respective candidates — K. Chuba as Independent and NPF’s Longrineken.

“The Election Commission must ensure that one voter gets only one vote,” Imkong said. He has already dashed off a letter to the commission.

Citing reports in the media, he wrote, “Changki and Khar villages which are the two largest villages in the constituency, have set up their respective candidates and following thereof, Congress party workers, supporters and I are not allowed to enter these two villages though they have the largest number of Congress party supporters.

“The electioneering rights of Congress party workers and supporters have been forcibly curtailed by the village councils and the workers and supporters of the other candidates by sheer physical force... Thus, if the current situation is allowed to continue, propriety of even the election of the returned candidate may be highly questionable,” the letter to the commission stated while appealing to ensure that one-man-one-vote is maintained so that the true essence of free and fair elections prevail according to democratic norms.

Changki village council chairman Rongsin said there was nothing wrong in the village taking a decision on whom to vote for. “We all agree, so where is the problem?”

A senior bureaucrat traced the phenomenon to Nagaland being basically a tribal society where universal suffrage came in late. “Parliamentary democracy in Nagaland is only about 50 years old and given that we are a tribal society with its own unique structure and sub-structures we will need some more time to cope and come to terms with the demands of democracy particularly insofar as right to franchise is concerned,” he said, adding that the urban centres did not suffer from this malaise.

Till then, the Atu Pongens may have little choice but to vote by rote.