Mizoram assembly election: MNF sees an opening in Congress-run state

Last Updated: Wed, Nov 28, 2018 14:52 hrs
Congress

A total of 40 seats are up for grabs as Mizoram goes to the polls on Wednesday with 209 candidates in the fray. A small state, it doesn’t have the traditional marks of anti incumbency but that doesn’t mean it isn’t present. Christians make up the vast majority of the state population and it has the highest tribal population in the country.

There has been some controversy leading up to the polls as the state’s Chief Election Officer S.B. Shashank was removed by the Election Commission. This, after civil society groups in the state demanded the move after the Chief Minister had written to the Prime Minister Modi regarding the officers’ conduct with respect to being ‘pro-Bru’. The Bru community was displaced after ethnic cleansing.

One of the issues in the state is prohibition. The Congress is not in favor of total prohibition. The leader of the Mizo National Front however is all in on prohibition saying in part, “We are going to solve the drug and alcohol problem by a total prohibition of liquor”. All leading parties have signed a pact with the Mizoram Peoples Forum (MNF), a church based poll watchdog group which helps ensure free and fair elections in the state.

History

In 2013, the Congress eased to victory in the state winning a little under 45% of the vote share and with it 34 seats. The BJP on the other hand has contested in the state five times but has yet to get off the mark. In 2008, the Congress improved on its vote count and seat share.

The state has been reliable for the Congress as it’s headed the state for a decade under 79 year old Chief Minister Lal Thanhawala who is the third longest serving Chief Minister in the country.

The primary political rival for the Congress in the state is the Mizo National Front (MNF) which won in 1998 and in 2003. The party leader Zoramthanga became Chief Minister twice. Its vote share in 2013 decreased to 29%.

Congress

The Congress is well placed in the state going into election day with history on its side. It’s also the only state in the North East where the Congress is in power making it the party’s last bastion in this region. The party, since 2016, has lost Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura to BJP and its allies.

There have been a few resignations from the state party – the speaker, the home minister and three MLA’s have resigned. However, its chief minister is still popular in the state and he remains confident of victory saying in part, “There’s no anti-incumbency wind, not to speak of wave. We are quite confident of retaining power.” However, no party has won three elections in a row in the state. A CVoter opinion poll shows that the Congress will suffer a setback and its vote share will diminish and the state possibly heading for a hung assembly.Thanhawla has indicated that he is willing to partner up with likeminded parties.

The Congress led government in 2015 decided to lift a ban on liquor and opposition parties have pounced on that blaming it for the thousands of alcohol related deaths. A strategy being used by the Congress is painting the BJ as anti-Christian, in a state where majority of the population are Christians. It has broadly criticised the BJP for the rise in intolerance and violence against minorities.

BJP

For the BJP, Mizoram is one state that remains elusive, in a region where they are dominant. They have fielded 39 candidates for the state, most of whom are Christians. This is a possible sign that the party sees some progress in the state, despite it likely being small. The BJP state secretary said in part, “Although we have put up candidates in all the seats barring one, we are not hopeful of winning more than 5 to 10 seats”.

The Prime Minister criticised the Congress for disrespecting the traditions and values of the north east in a jab against Congress leader Shashi Tharoor who criticised Modi for wearing ‘outlandish head gear’ but refusing to wear a Muslim skull cap.

Last week, the party released its manifesto for the state. One of the promises made is to include Mizo, the official language of the state, in the Eighth Schedule to the Constitution. Apart from this, the manifesto included the setting up of medical and engineering colleges. The party certainly has an uphill climb in the state, as would any party which is counts itself as pro-Hindu and has a Hindutva message; one which doesn’t play in the state. The main target of both the major parties in the state is the BJP and not necessarily each other.

MNF and other parties

The main opposition to the Congress is the MNF. The party is led by 84 year old Zoramthanga, who became the leader after the demise of Laldenga in 1990. He is confident of the party’s chances in the state. “We will get two-third majority this time; I believe we will get 25-30 seats. We will be able to form the next government without the help from any other party”, he said in an interview to the Wire.

His party has four main promises. The first being self-sufficiency of food supply. The state has large areas of cultivable land but doesn’t have the necessary mechanics and resources to take advantage. The second is a policy to augment bamboo plantation to advance the state’s economy. Third is to combat the drug abuse problem in the state and the final is to provide proper healthcare.

Last year, six mall regional parties came together and formed the Zoram Peoples Movement (ZPM) to contest elections in the state. The main strategy for the party is providing an alternative to the Congress and MNF as well as preventing the BJP from gaining any influence among Christians in the state.

The Nagaland Post editorial lays out the landscape ahead of the polls –

The Congress under Lal Thanhawla has been in power long enough and despite providing stable development, is also facing an anti-incumbency sentiment. BJP is no longer an idealistic party but one with a very pragmatic approach to power politics”.

More columns by Varun Sukumar