It’s hard to find visible signs of an impending election in Mizoram. A rare poster pops up on a moss-covered cliff-face around a corner. A chair stands at the entrance of an empty campaign office, set amid cheek-by-jowl shops. At the headquarters of the Mizo National Front (MNF), a young party worker watches highlights of a Premier League football match on his smartphone. Mizoram will vote on November 28 to elect a new government, but its picture-postcard hilltop capital Aizawl seems disinterested in the democratic process. This is a laidback city basking under the mellow November sun, watching the world go by. In front of a big graffiti of the state election department urging people to vote, young men and women sit on a row of parked motorbikes and discuss football, cinema and everything else but elections.
The real “action” was happening on the street in front of the state assembly, where thousands of people—men and women, young and old—were chanting and singing in a mass demonstration against the state’s chief electoral officer S.B. Shashank. For two days, the protests continued as rival political parties came together for what was described as a matter of Mizo pride. The Election Commission finally decided to replace Shashank, who had angered Mizos by allowing Bru tribals to vote at their camps in Tripura. An estimated 30,000 Brus are living in six camps in Tripura since they fled Mizoram following ethnic clashes in the 1990s. Mizo organisations say the Brus have refused to return despite signing a repatriation agreement with the Mizoram government.
Among the protesters was one carrying a placard: “Don’t take Mizos for granted.” “Peaceful elections since 1972,” reads another, underlining the year Mizoram became a Union territory.
The young discusses everything but polls in Aizawl
These summed up elections in Mizoram. Even when insurgency raged in Mizoram—ending in 1986 and leading to the formation of the state—elections have been an uneventful and orderly affair. And the Mizos take pride in the manner they go about the exercise.
The secret to Mizoram’s quaint election process lies in the small first-floor office of the Mizoram People’s Forum (MPF), where R. Lalbiakmawia is scanning the day’s newspapers—all in Mizo language—for election-related news. The church-led MPF is the overarching group that guides the election process in the state—its diktats are binding and followed to the last stop by all political parties. The MPF was formed in 2006 by the Presbyterian Church, the largest Christian denomination in the state. “All political parties must sign an agreement with us for the elections. This document is a set of dos and don’ts which we expect everyone to follow to ensure a clean election,” says Lalbiakmawia, a pastor who heads the MPC.
The agreement mainly reiterates the EC’s model code of conduct but also lays down a few points on morality and ethics, including certain norms for fielding candidates—“without any record of infidelity”, “person of great human value” and “religious, a prominent member of his religion, renowned and faithful”.
About 87 per cent of Mizoram’s 1.12-million people are devout Christians and the church plays a crucial role in society and polity. Lalbiakmawia justifies the moral policing in politics. “You cannot separate religion from politics. The aim of both is to create a better society. We just try to clean up elections and politics. We also work with the EC to educate the people,” he says.
The lack of visible election activities has to do with the MPC guidelines that categorically bar loudspeakers, public entertainers and processions after election dates are announced. Even when Union leaders visit the state, flags and banners are allowed only at the rally venues. “And each campaign meeting is moderated by an MPC official. It allows us to ensure that candidates and other leaders don’t make provocative statements,” says a leader of the Young Mizo Association, one of the biggest organisations in the MPC. The youth group is also active on the day of voting, making seating arrangements et al, especially for the elderly outside polling booths. “We don’t take sides. The people decide which party or candidate they want. We just try to ensure that the elections are free and fair in the true sense,” the leader says.
Educating women voters is mostly done by the Mizo Hmeichhe Insuihkhawm Pawl, the state’s largest women organisation and part of the MPF. Local TV channels arrange face-offs between contesting candidates who are asked questions by a select audience.
A Close Race
Despite the rules and regulations, political parties still have to enter the ring and fight the battle. And reach out to the voters with their plans and programmes. The ruling Congress led by chief minister Lal Thanhawla is battling large-scale desertions of senior leaders, including former speaker Hphei who joined the BJP and home minister Lalzirliana who switched over to the Mizo National Front (MNF). The Congress is also facing massive anti- incumbency after two consecutive terms. And this is what the MNF is trying to cash in. MNF leader and former chief minister Zoramthanga claims “hundreds of thousands” of Congressmen have come to his party (See, Congress is Crumbling, MNF Will Form Government).
“We can’t separate religion from politics. The aim of both is to create a better society,” says Mizo church group leader Lalbiakmawia.
The surprise package, however, could be the BJP, a marginal player in the state till now but still nurturing dreams of wresting the last bastion of the Congress in the Northeast. What makes the equation interesting is the fact that the MNF is part of the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA). The Congress alleges that the BJP is trying to grab power through the “back door” like it did in Meghalaya where the party is in the ruling coalition despite winning only two seats. Both the BJP and MNF deny the allegation. “There is no front door, back door or middle door. We want to win as many seats. The state is suffering due to Congress misrule,” says Manash Deka, the BJP state unit’s media in-charge.
Also in the reckoning for the state’s 40 assembly seats is the Zoram People’s Movement, a conglomeration of two regional political parties and five social organisations, which is projecting itself as the third alternative.
Despite the odds stacked against it, the Congress may have found a lifeline in the Shashank controversy, with the chief minister taking the lead in objecting to the actions of the CEO, whose complaint led to the removal of IAS officer Lalnunmawia Chuango as the principal secretary. If public anger turns into votes, the Congress may just scrape through. The Bible is replete with instances of miracles. As a devout Christian, Lal Thanhawla would know better.
By Anupam Bordoloi in Aizawl