Awan Konyak narrowly missed making history in 2018 when her Naga People’s Front (NPF) rival defeated her by 905 votes to bag the Aboi Assembly constituency. Four other women candidates that year were trounced.
But the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) believes that either or both of its women candidates in the February 27 Nagaland polls can succeed where Ms. Konyak failed – becoming the State’s first woman MLA.
So do the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress, who have fielded one woman each.
The reason: This time around, these parties have invested heavily in the ‘winnability’ of their women candidates, unlike in the 13 past elections where women usually featured as an afterthought.
Not just optics
Leaving aside the Akuluto constituency that the BJP won uncontested, 183 candidates will be vying for the 59 remaining seats in the Nagaland Assembly. That list includes four women, one less than in 2018.
However, the parties insist that they have now focussed on the quality of the women candidates they are fielding rather than merely “going for optics” in order to “make the list more gender-balanced”.
Hekani Jakhalu, the NDPP’s candidate for the Dimapur-III constituency, is a US-educated lawyer and social entrepreneur. The 48-year-old is banking on her outreach through YouthNet, a non-profit she founded almost two decades ago to educate the youth and help them acquire life skills, to stand her in good stead with the electorate.
“Society in Nagaland has been very patriarchal but the mindset is changing. This reflects in the time and energy the NDPP is spending on me and my fellow candidate, Salhoutuonuo Kruse contesting the Western Angami seat,” she told The Hindu during a break from campaigning.
Like Ms. Jakhalu, the 56-year-old Ms. Kruse has worked with various NGOs and civil society organisations. Rosy Thomson, 58, contesting the Tening constituency on a Congress ticket, has also been a social worker for three decades.
On the other hand, Kahuli Sema retired as the chief engineer of Nagaland’s Public Works Department to contest the Atoizu constituency as a BJP candidate. “Women’s participation and representation in decision-making bodies and politics is a marker of progress,” the 57-year-old said.
“Ours is a party committed to women’s welfare and empowerment. For this reason, we sent S. Phangnon Konyak to Parliament as the first woman Rajya Sabha member from Nagaland. We allotted a seat to Ms. Sema because BJP gives priority and space to women,” Sapralu Nyekha, the BJP’s State media cell convenor, said.
Ms. Phangnon Konyak became Nagaland’s lone member of the Upper House in March 2022, almost 45 years after Rano M. Shaiza of the United Democratic Party became the first woman member of the Lok Sabha from the State.
‘Barriers can be broken’
The goal for the women candidates in this election is not merely to etch their names in Nagaland’s political history.
“Many women in Nagaland are wired to think they cannot compete against men in politics. We want to show that barriers can be broken and women can deliver as public representatives,” Ms. Jakhalu said.
She said that a berth in the Assembly would enable her to live the dream of “mentoring at least 20 women” to become legislators and parliamentarians. For that, she has to get past the 2018 winner and Lok Janshakti Party (Ram Vilas) candidate Azheto Zhimomi and three others.
Ms. Kruse of the NDPP is likely to have it easier in Western Angami against her lone independent rival Keneizhakho Nakhro. The same is the case with the BJP’s Ms. Sema, whose only rival in Atoizu is Picto of the Nationalist Congress Party. Ms. Thomson of the Congress is up against five other candidates, including the NDPP’s Tarie Zeliang, for the Tening seat.