ELECTION CAMPAIGNS in Mizoram are different from those in the other states. There are no big rallies or shows of strength. Door-to-door campaigns are banned by organisations linked to churches. Instead, you will find small corner meetings and debates, akin to election campaigns in the US. Political parties in the state take pride in their frugal ways. Candidates are not permitted to offer feasts or gifts. Even in the capital city of Aizawl, election signs and flags are rare. And Sundays are holidays, even for campaigners.
The election issues in Mizoram are also different. The state’s politics revolves around ethnicity, religion and indigenous rights. The ethnic conflict in the neighbouring state of Manipur, between the Meiteis and the Kukis, is an election issue. So is the influx of Chin communities from Myanmar. The Mizos of Mizoram, the Kukis of Manipur, the Chins of Myanmar and the Bawms of Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh are a broad ethnic group. Interestingly, the Israel-Palestine conflict is also an issue, as a significant number of people from Mizoram live in Israel after embracing Judaism.
The Mizo National Front government, led by Chief Minister Zoramthanga, has offered asylum to 35,000 refugees from Myanmar and 12,500 internally displaced people from Manipur. The actual number could be much higher, as many refugees live in rented homes or with relatives. Though the MNF is part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, Zoramthanga has emerged as a champion of the Chin-Kuki-Zo communities. He defied the Union home ministry’s order to collect biometric data of all “illegal immigrants”, citing concerns about potential discrimination.
The MNF says its compassion for the ‘brothers and sisters’ will translate into votes. During the violence in Manipur, Zoramthanga supported the movements in Churachandpur and led a solidarity march in Aizawl. He even convened a meeting of Kuki MLAs from Manipur. The MNF manifesto pledges to unite the Zo people who live in India and abroad under a single administration with “greater authority”. However, it does not clarify how a regional party plans to unify tribes from other countries and states.
Zoramthanga is confident about winning the election. He says the contest is between the MNF and the Zoram People’s Movement. A victory would mark a fourth term for Zoramthanga, who cut his teeth in the 1960s as a secessionist activist of the Mizo underground movement.
Voters in Mizoram have always chosen either the Congress or the MNF. In 2018, after a decade-long Congress rule, they elected the MNF in 26 of 40 seats.The Congress managed five seats, while a collective of civil society organisations, Zoram People’s Movement, won eight seats and became the main opposition. It was registered as a political party in 2019, led by former police officer Lalduhoma, who had worked with prime minister Indira Gandhi’s security service. In the current election, the ZPM poses a major threat to both the Congress and the MNF.
The BJP won one seat last time. It has no open understanding with the ZPM, but they work hand in glove. The BJP is unhappy about the MNF’s independent stance on various issues despite being in the NDA. Also, Zoramthanga has not allowed the lone BJP legislator to sit on the treasury benches. A deal with the ZPM might be the BJP’s best bet to conquer the last frontier in the northeast.
“This time, we will form the government. We are the only genuine regional party,” said Lalduhoma, the ZPM’s president and chief ministerial candidate. The ZPM has been accusing the MNF of corruption and subservience to Delhi. Lalduhoma said the contest was between the ZPM and the MNF. His party is gaining traction among neutral voters. It won all the seats in the recent municipal election of Lunglei, Mizoram’s second-largest city.
Union Minister Kiren Rijiju, who oversees the BJP’s campaign in Mizoram, hinted at a potential alliance with the ZPM. The BJP won its first assembly seat in Mizoram, the Chakma-dominated Tuichawng constituency, in 2018. Some senior MNF leaders like speaker Lalrinliana Sailo and former minister K. Beichhua have crossed over to the BJP.
The BJP had won the Christian-dominated northeastern states by diluting its hindutva ideology. But the violence in Manipur, particularly the attacks on churches in the Imphal valley, has put the party on the back foot. Still it is hoping for a good show in Mizoram. “The people of the northeast are aware of the developmental initiatives by the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The party is poised to become a significant force following the election,” said Anil Antony, BJP national secretary and co-incharge of Mizoram.The party has fielded candidates in 23 seats.
Modi, who had never missed a poll campaign in the region, this time skipped Mizoram. There is talk that he did so because he has not visited Manipur after the ethnic clashes began on May 3.
Mizoram was the ‘last bastion’ that the Congress lost in the northeast, and the party is trying hard to win it back. Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who skipped the Tripura election campaign earlier this year, took a special flight to Agartala and then a chopper to Aizawl to kick off the party’s Mizoram campaign. He participated in a ‘padyatra’, modelled on his Bharat Jodo Yatra, in Aizawl. He accused the MNF and the ZPM of paving the way for the BJP. “If the BJP comes to power, it will destroy your culture, language and religion,” he said in Aizwal.
Though political observers do not expect the Congress to win much more than last time, Rahul declared: “Congress will form a government in Mizoram.”
After the retirement of its five-time chief minister Lal Thanhawla, the Congress is restructuring itself under state party president Lalsawta, who is also its chief minister candidate. “People understand what the BJP stands for,” he said. “It is no longer a distant threat.”
The legislature has always been inaccessible to women in Mizoram even though they play an important role in the state’s economy. Only four women have become MLAs in the past 50 years, and none of them in the outgoing assembly. “Ours is a patriarchal society which believes that women shouldn’t be in politics,” said Baryl Vanneihsangi, ZPM candidate for Aizwal South-3 who is a former radio jockey. “I consider myself fortunate to have broken this barrier. This is about ensuring the survival of women, and we can be just as successful as men in business, administration and politics.”
This time, 15 female candidates are trying their luck―three from the BJP and two each from the three main parties. The BJP manifesto has promised a 33 per cent job reservation for women.
The MNF leans on Mizo pride and brotherhood, but allegations of corruption have damaged its reputation. People are also concerned about the increasing drug abuse, unemployment and inadequate infrastructure. The Congress has spoken about the dangers of the Unified Civil Code and Anti-Conversion Law in the Christian-dominated areas. If neither the MNF nor the ZPM secures a clear majority, the Congress and the BJP can be expected to play shrewd political games.