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Last Updated : Nov 06, 2018 07:08 PM IST | Source: Moneycontrol.com

Podcast | Editor's Pick – Key factors that can make a difference in Mizoram Assembly polls

Mizoram goes to the hustings on November 28, and the results will be announced on December 11

Moneycontrol News @moneycontrolcom

Rakesh Sharma
Moneycontrol Contributor

Mizoram – the only state in the Northeast thus far unclaimed by the party of Ram. One of the seven states in the country where Hindus are a minority, Mizoram is the only state in the Northeast under Congress rule at present.

The BJP is in power either on its own or in a coalition in six of the seven sisters. The 23rd state of India – erstwhile part of Assam – will test the Congress’s ability to hold the only outpost they have in the Northeast and the BJP’s ability to appeal to non-Hindu voters.

The Mizo National Front, led by former Chief Minister Zoramthanga, has enjoyed two terms in power (1998-2008), but since the inception of the state, it is the Indian National Congress that has been the dominant party in this, the second least populous state in the country.

The longest-serving chief minister of the state, the incumbent Lal Thanhawla has served four full terms and one half-term (1984-1986; 1989-1998; 2008-present). He led the Congress to victory in the last assembly elections winning 34 of the assembly seats and 44.6 percent of the vote share. The Mizo National Front procured five seats and 28.7 percent of the vote share, while the Mizoram People’s Conference won the remaining seat.

When Assam was split, the Mizo hills area was declared Mizoram after insurgency and it received the status of a Union Territory in 1972.

A peace accord was signed between the central government and insurgent groups of Mizoram on June 30, 1986.

The insurgents then surrendered their arms, ending two-decade long terrorism in the north-eastern state. After becoming a state, Mizoram has witnessed elections at five-year intervals.

Last polls held in the state were on November 25, 2013 for 40 seats of legislative assembly. The state saw a voter turnout of 81 percent, and Congress came to power. (Moneycontrol News)

Dynastic politics is the name of the game even in Mizoram. In addition to that, there are issues of anti-incumbency, unrest within the party, exit of key members that the Congress is facing.

The BJP has a perception war to win. In our ongoing series decoding the major factors at the play in the assembly elections, today we turn to Mizoram, which goes to the polls on November 28. My name is Rakesh Sharma, and you are listening to Moneycontrol.

Anti-incumbency

Lal Thanhawla, the incumbent chief minister is the third longest-serving chief minister in the country.

Mizoram has been under Congress rule for a decade under the leadership of Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla.

The 79-year-old leader, who has been the chief minister of Mizoram for five times, is yet again the most prominent name in the fray. He has been the chief minister of the state since 11 December 2008. His electoral constituencies are Serchhip and Hrangturzo.

In the 2008 assembly poll, the Congress won 32 out of the 40 seats with 39 percent vote share, while the major Opposition party in Mizoram Mizo National Front (MNF) had three seats with 31 percent vote share.

In 2013, like we said before, the Congress increased both its seat count and the vote share (34 and 45 percent) while the MNF saw its vote share decrease to 29 percent but walked away with five seats. In the last Lok Sabha election, Mizoram sent a Congress representative to Parliament – the state’s lone MP.

The Mizo National Front won the 1998 and 2003 state elections and had formed the government for two terms. The party’s leader, Zoramthanga, has been chief minister of the state twice.

The Congress, having been at the helm of affairs for as long as it has been, is facing anti-incumbency, according to multiple reports. Some ministers from the ruling party are facing corruption charges. Deputy controller of mines, Lalhriatrenga Chhangte, had alleged Lal Thanhawla of amassing assets disproportionate to his known sources of income.

Mizoram police had filed a charge sheet against Thanhawla and two businessmen in connection with a second corruption case. Investigation revealed that more than Rs 5.25 crore was paid from various accounts of the Mumbai-based Eastern Overseas Corporation, which undertook two hydel project construction works in the state, to Oceanic Business Agency, a firm owned by the late Lal Thanzaua, son of the former chief minister, the charge sheet said. Chhangte had also alleged that the chief minister was constructing a multi-storied building in Kolkata. (Moneycontrol News)

Another Congress leader who could impact the upcoming elections in Mizoram is Lalrobiaka (Dampa). He sparked controversy due to his rising assets which grew by a whopping 2,406 percent in just five years, according to reports.

The poor state of the infrastructure in the state is also a factor contributing to the growing fatigue in the Congress among the voting public. Mizoram’s roads are in a terrible condition, and they have not seen improvement over the two consecutive terms that the Congress has enjoyed there.

Thousands of farmers in the state took to the streets recently demanding land reforms and regulated market system for sustainable development of farmers. Farmers account more than 11 lakh, or around 70%, of the state’s population (Economic Times).

Dynasty politics

Much like the rest of the country, it is all in the family. The extended family of incumbent chief minister is trying its luck this time around in the 2018 assembly elections. On top of the list is who is widely believed to be the de facto leader chief minister, Lal Thanzara, the younger brother of CM Thanhawla and current health minister.

The sister of Urban Development and Sports Minister Zodintluanga, 58, is married to Mr Thanhawla’s son. He is seeking his third straight term from Thorang.

Another beneficiary of the keeping-it-in-the-family credo is the daughter of former minister C Chawngkunga. Vanlalampuii Chawngthu, the first woman to become a minister in the state after Lalhlimpuii Hmar was inducted into the Mizoram assembly in 1987, is seeking re-election from the Hrangturzo seat. She is currently the general secretary of the Mizoram Pradesh Congress Committee.

Accusations of dynastic politics are not new to Mizoram’s Congress. In the last polls, the Congress gave the ticket to Chalrosanga Ralte for the Lunglei West seat. Chalrosanga is the brother of Lalriliani, the chief minister’s wife.

Chalrosanga is also the younger brother of Mizoram’s sports minister Zodintluanga.

Congress had also retained Lt Col Zosangliana, brother-in-law of Mizoram assembly speaker John Rotluangliana. He was nominated for the Aizawl South-II seat despite the “non-performer” tag.

BJP Supremo, Amit Shah, addressing a rally in Aizawl took potshots at the Congress for perpetuating “a corrupt and dynastic rule in the state.” MNF chief Zoramthanga said, “Letting family members grab all the opportunities is typical Congress culture.”

The Congress, defending its choice of candidates went on to say, “The performances of the Ministers those detractors say benefited from being in the right family speak for their ability.”

Unrest in the Congress

Since September, five sitting Congress MLAs have resigned their post. The latest on that list is Speaker Hiphei, who, today on the 5th of November, resigned from his post, the House as well as the Congress and joined the BJP. Himanta Biswa Sarma, BJP leader and convenor of the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), said of Hiphei, “He is a very senior leader. His joining the saffron party will greatly strengthen the organisation.”

Sarma did not however comment on whether the BJP will field Hiphei as a candidate in the assembly elections. Not fielding him might be problematic considering one of the triggers for Hiphei to exit the Congress party was him being replaced as the Congress candidate for the Palak constituency by party general secretary KT Rokhaw last week. Reports indicate that it might have been the other way around too – that the Congress replaced Hiphei following rumours that he might move to the BJP.

“Considering Hiphei’s age and experience, we decided to give him the ticket. But there was lot of opposition against him from the party workers and we also felt he did not stand a chance at winning,” said Congress’s state unit secretary Bhupen Borah to the Hindustan Times.

“Hiphei first went to Guwahati and then flew to New Delhi to hold consultations with senior party leaders. We have no idea if he will be given a BJP ticket,” Mizoram BJP chief JV Hluna said to The Hindustan Times.

“We knew the speaker was unhappy with the Congress. One thing is certain, even if he does not get a BJP ticket, he will leave Congress and will support our candidates in the election.”

CM Lal Thanhawla is the only Congress CM who also heads the state party unit. State Congress leaders have accused the CM of functioning “independently and in an autocratic manner.”

He had earlier skipped the party’s central election committee (CEC) in Delhi, a meeting mandatory for the party state unit head.

Prior to Hiphei’s exit, four other Congress legislators -- R Lalzirliana, Lalrinliana Sailo, Buddha Dhan Chakma and Hmingdailova Khiangte – had quit the ruling party. Lalzirliana was home minister in the cabinet. Reports seem to suggest that his exit was triggered by Lal Thanhawla promoting his younger brother Lal Thanzara as a probable successor.

The Congress has denied these claims. Lalzirliana and Sailo have now joined the MNF, Chakma the BJP, and Khiangte has announced he would contest the polls as an independent candidate.

With these resignations, the Congress has 30 members in the assembly, while MNF has six. Sources in the MNF told The New Indian Express that both Congress deserters joining the party are likely to be its candidates in the state elections. The MNF is one of the constituents of the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA).

The exodus from Congress in Mizoram is very much along the lines of what was seen in Assam, Meghalaya, and Manipur. The Congress does have numbers as of now, but the rifts in the party leave the foundation not as stable as it once used to be.

Bru refugees situation

About 32,000 people belonging to the Bru tribe have been living in six temporary camps in North Tripura. They fled Mizoram in 1997 following ethnic clashes.

The genesis of these clashes dates back to the mid-90s. According to Scroll, Two Mizo organisations, the Young Mizo Association and Mizo Zirlai Pawl (or the Mizo Students’ Association) reportedly demanded that Brus be left out of the state’s electorate rolls. Their contention being Brus were not indigenous to Mizoram.

Brus accused the two Mizo nationalist groups of having their names deleted from the electoral rolls. The Brus rose in revolt, led by an armed outfit called the Bru National Liberation Front (BNLF), and a political body called the Bru National Union. The groups wanted more political autonomy for the tribe and the creation of a Bru Autonomous District Council.

In October 1997, a forest official at the Dampa Tiger Reserve was allegedly killed by the BNLF militants.  Violence broke out after a forest official was killed by Bru National Liberation Front (BNLF) militants.

Thousands of Bru tribals were forced out of their homes and villages following the Mizo groups setting fire to them. Several hundreds of families walked hundreds of miles barefoot with little of their belongings. A similar spate of violence followed in 2009.

The Bru tribals have demanded the creation of an area development council for the Brus in Mizoram, allocation of five hectares of land to each refugee family, cluster villages with each housing at least 500 families, Rs 4 lakh compensation to each family, and new electoral rolls in relief camps.

The ET reported on July 3 that the Union home minister, the governments of Mizoram and Tripura and the Mizoram Bru Displaced Peoples Forum (MBDPF) inked a pact for repatriation of displaced Bru refugees after almost 22 years.

However, the Centre has turned down a proposal for inclusion of the fresh demand and stated that as decided, displaced Bru refugee would be repatriated to Mizoram before September 30, 2018 and all the temporary camps in North Tripura would be closed in the first week of October. This has not happened.

Furthermore, reports indicate that repatriation may have something to do with the assembly elections. A large number of Brus are Hindus, and apparently, this never quite went down well with the Mizos, most of them devout Christians. Arunabh Saikia, writing for Scroll, quoted one of the Bru tribals as saying, “Even before all the trouble started, they would sometimes say, ‘If you want to live in Mizoram you have to be a Christian.”

Even back in 1999, LK Advani contended that the Brus were being persecuted for their Hindu beliefs, a claim refuted by Lal Thanhawla who said the Brus were originally animist and a majority of them were converted to Christianity.

Scroll reported that in January of last year, an organisation called the Bru Hindu Joint Coordination Committee wrote to the Home Ministry asking it to “safeguard teh Hindu religion or indigenous faith of the Bru community in Mizoram.

This has resulted in the rumours that the push for repatriation is led by the BJP which believes the Brus to be an important Hindu vote bank in an otherwise Christian-dominated Mizoram. JV Hluna, BJP member, speaking to Scroll, had refuted these claims, saying, “It is only around 10 constituencies that will be affected if they return.”

Interestingly, the MBDPF has appealed to political parties in Mizoram to refrain from visiting the relief camps for poll campaigning.

The MBDPF had recently appealed to the Election Commission of India to establish polling stations in the relief camps for the Bru voters, reported The Week. The NGO Coordination Committee, a conglomerate of major civil societies in Mizoram, however, urged the Election Commission to disenfranchise all Bru voters who chose to stay back in Tripura and did not return to Mizoram.

According to some estimates, just 31 families have made the return to Mizoram. Several hundreds of families remain in Tripura for fear of further retaliation and violence.

State interference in the election commission

The Indian Express reported on the November 1 that the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) SB Shashank complained of “direct interference” by the state government in preparation for the polls.

The CEO had highlighted the role of Lalnunmawia Chuaungo, a principal secretary-level officer who was eventually removd by the Election Commission. This is in close connection with the voting rights of the Bru tribals. Shashank had issued a statement on the September 11 that identification slips could be used as valid documents by eligible Bru migrants in Tripura.

However, Chuaungo had issued another order two days later asking the Bru refugees to not use the slips for any purpose but repatriation. The Mizoram government, Shashank is learnt to have said, did not seem keen to have any new Bru voters enrolled. (The Indian Express)

The EC has asked Chuaungo -- a 1987-batch Gujarat cadre officer -- to be relieved of his responsibilities in the state.

The Coordination Committee, meanwhile, has sought the removal of SB Shashank.

Prohibition politics

After 17 years of total prohibition, the current Congress government had lifted the Mizoram Liquor (Prohibition and Control) Act in 2014 but regulated liquor’s sale and consumption. The state of Mizoram now has 30 retail liquor shops and two bars.

The New Indian Express says, “The government issues liquor cards to consumers who can buy, at the most, six bottles of liquor and 12 bottles of beer a month. The cards are issued to people aged over 21 years following payment of Rs 500 as registration fees and renewed annually through payment of Rs 300.”

The first liquor shop opened in Aizawl in March 2015, and apparently did bumper business. Close on the heels of this came reports of increased alcohol-related deaths in the state.

We are for total prohibition. If we form the government, we will impose total prohibition. They (Congress) are selling liquor and hundreds and thousands of people died prematurely,” MNF chief and former Chief Minister Zoramthanga alleged, adding that the Church was also in favour of total prohibition.

The Young Mizo Association has also stated its demand for total prohibition. Zoram People’s Movement – a conglomerate of non-BJP and non-Congress political parties – had also promised that it would enforce a total ban on liquor if voted to power.

New (but small) challenges

Apart from individuals, new parties too will play an important role in the state’s election.

A new group called Zoram Exodus Movement (ZEM), formed by retired priests, retired government officials and senior journalists, announced an alliance with the Zoram Nationalist Party (ZN) and the Mizoram People’s Conference (MPC) under the banner of Zoram People’s Movement (ZPM).

Anti-corruption watchdog People’s Right to Information and Development Implementation Society of Mizoram (PRISM) converted itself into a political party as People’s Representation for Identity and Status of Mizoram and retained its abbreviated form: PRISM.

The Maraland Democratic Front (MDF), earlier an ally of the Opposition Mizo National Front (MNF), merged with the BJP on October 25 along with its two members of district council (MDCs) in the Mara Autonomous District Council.

Not a rosy road ahead for the lotus

The BJP currently rules in Assam, Tripura, Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh, and supports coalition governments in Meghalaya and Nagaland. Winning Mizoram is the final frontier for the party in the North East and will help it achieve its stated goal of a Congress-mukt Bharat.

The road for the Lotus is certainly not rosy – the two opposing parties have come out guns blazing about the Hindutva-peddling ways of the BJP.

“The Congress should win with a comfortable margin as a fractured mandate would pave way for the BJP to go for a post-poll alliance with the Mizo National Front (MNF),” state Congress spokesperson Lallianchhunga said.

“The BJP can cause damage to the soul, spirit and body of the Christians in Mizoram," he added. He urged that people should support the Congress, church leaders and civil societies in protecting the state from such dangers and for protecting religious freedom.

Recent reports indicate that in case of a fractured post-poll scenario, the MNF might form a coalition with the BJP to form the government in Mizoram, but the MNF has refuted these reports.

The BJP has contested in assembly elections in Mizoram five times now but has had no success. The recent defection of some influential leaders of the Congress into the BJP is being seen as a chance to make some inroads into the assembly, but popular belief and fear among the largely Christian electorate of Mizoram that the BJP is a pro-Hindu party would be a huge impediment for the BJP to realise its wishes of Northeastern domination.

With only 7.68 people on the rolls, Mizoram still plays out as a snapshot of what we can expect from the general elections. Will the Congress hold on to its seat anti-incumbency notwithstanding? Will the mood of the other six sisters sway Sister Mizoram and make room for the BJP? How much of a dent will the exodus in Congress make in the party’s fortunes? Can the BJP ever win over to its side a non-Hindu electorate? Key questions with big answers await Mizoram.

Mizoram goes to the hustings on November 28, and the results will be announced on December 11.

Assembly Elections 2018: Read the latest news, views and analysis here
First Published on Nov 6, 2018 08:38 am
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