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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 1 New Delhi December 22, 2018 [Annual Number]

Mizoram Assembly Elections 2018: An Analysis

Sunday 23 December 2018

by V. Bijukumar

The astounding victory of the Mizo National Front (MNF) and humbling defeat of the Congress in the recent Mizoram Assembly elections have signified the return of ethno-regional politics not only in the State but also in the North-East region as a whole. For the MNF it was really a daunting task to unseat the LalThanhawla-led Congress Government (in power for two consecutive terms) and for the Congress it was a fight to keep intact its last bastion in the North-East. Since the first Assembly elections after the formation of the State in 1987, both the Congress and MNF have ruled the State. In the last two-and-a-half decades, the two-party contest between the Congress and MNF was in fact a battle between the Congress’ LalThanhawla and Zoramthanga of the MNF. Zoramtanga, a former rebel leader-turned-politician, inherited the legacy of Laldenga; he assumed the post of the MNF President after the demise of Laldenga in 1990. He held the Chief Minister’s post in the State for two terms and emerged as the potential contender against the Congress in the State.

In the 2018 Assembly elections, in which 40 constituencies went to the polls on November 28, the voter turnout was about 80 per cent. The Congress and MNF fielded candidates for all the 40 seats and the newly-floated political outfit, the Zoram People’s Movement, contested 35 seats while the BJP fought in 39 seats. The MNF won 26 seats with a vote-share of 37.6 per cent against the incumbent Congress which secured only five seats with a vote-share of 30.2 per cent. Though much hype was created throughout the election campaign, the BJP could win only one seat and secured eight per cent of the vote-share. In fact, the real challenge to the Congress, and the MNF to a lesser extent, came from the multitude of independent candidates who won eight seats with a vote-share of 22.9 per cent.

High-Voltage Campaign

The State witnessed a multi-cornered contest in which the ruling Congress, BJP and MNF put up strong electoral fights to win the support of the people in the Christian-dominated State. In fact, the tiny State witnessed a high-voltage election campaign as the leaders of both the Congress and BJP made desperate efforts to influence the voters. The galaxy of leaders who descended in Mizoram included Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Congress President Rahul Gandhi, BJP President Amit Shah in addition to a whole lot of Union Ministers and Chief Ministers of the North-East. In his campaign in the State, Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised development issues such as revving the border haats, increasing the volume of trade along the Mizoram-Myanmar border. The BJP also promised to protect the culture and development of the region. The BJP manifesto promised to include the Mizo language in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. Addressing a rally in Mizoram on October 17, Amit Shah declared that next Christmas in Mizoram would be celebrated under BJP rule. He also asserted that Mizoram would have the 20th State Government during the tenure of PM Narendra Modi. Shah even claimed that the State received only Rs 19,974 crores in the 13th Finance Commission whereas the Modi Government doubled it to Rs 42,972 crores. He accused the Congress Government’s two flagship programmes—the New Land Use Policy (NLUP) and New Economic Development Policy (NEDP)—for generating corruption and stagnating development in the State. The MNF focused on the lack of development and promised to reinforce the liquor ban during the campaign. It promised to impose a prohibition on liquor, and implement the Social Economic Development Programme (SEDP). The Congress, on the other hand, promised to continue with its flagship programmes for farmers and youth. It pledged to continue with its NLUP for the farmers and NEDP for the unemployed youth.

MNF’s Thumping Victory

Moving away from the North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), the MNF contested the Assembly elections alone and raced to power defeating the Congress. It may be recalled that the NEDA, a conglomeration of regional parties led by the BJP in the North-East, was formed in 2016 and the MNF was one of its important constituents. The emergence of the MNF as the political manifestation of ethno-regionalism, generating ethnic consciousness and perpetuating ethnic sentiments among the Mizos, is a unique experiment in the politics of Mizoram. Unlike the Asom Gana Parishad, which was formed only after the Assam movement, the MNF as an ethno-regional political party was set up in the turbulent years of the insurgency. On October 22, 1961, after the famine, the Mizo National Famine Front (MNFF) was transformed into a regional political party, the MNF, under the leadership of Laldenga though the Election Commission of India did not recognise it as a regional political party at that time. For quite some time, the MNF was outlawed and involved in underground activities.

In the 1987 elections to the State Legislative Assembly, the MNF won 24 out of 40 seats and formed the Ministry on February 20, 1987. The party was able to secure 36.5 per cent votes against the 33.5 per cent of the Congress Party which won only 13 seats and the People’s Conference with 26.6 per cent votes and securing two seats. However, the MNF Government could not complete its full five-year term due to dissidence in the party. On August 30, 1988, the MNF split and was reduced to a minority in the State Legislative Assembly. Subsequently, the State came under President’s Rule which was followed by mid-term elections in January 1989. However, the 1998 elections witnessed the re-emergence of the MNF which won 21 seats against the Congress party’s six seats. In the 2003 elections the MNF continued with its tally of 21 seats against the Congress’ 12. However, the 2008 Assembly elections saw the virtual rout of the MNF as the party won only four seats in the 40-member Assembly. In the 2013 Assembly elections, the MNF won just five seats with a vote-share of 36.65 per cent.

In the 2018 Assembly elections, the MNF focused on the lack of development, especially poor infrastructure during the two consecutive terms of the Congress Government. On many occasions, such as the repatriation of the Brus from Tripura and agitation against the State Chief Electoral Officer, the party was able to challenise the ethnic consciousness against the ruling Congress. It may be recalled that as the elections approached, the State witnessed the civil society demand for the removal of S.B. Shashank, the Chief Electoral Officer, for his efforts to set up polling booths in areas in Tripura where the Brus had settled. Since 1997, the Brus have been casting votes for elections in Mizoram inside the relief camps in Tripura. Shashank was accused of using ‘unfair means’ to conduct the elections and favouring the minority Bru community. The Aizawl city witnessed about 50,000 protesters who also aroused ethnic sentiments. The civil society groups, comprising the Young Mizo Association, Mizoram Senior Citizens’ Association, Mizo Women’s Federation, Mizo Students’ Association and the Mizo Students’ Union, spearheaded the movement. Though the Congress also strongly supported the agitation, the rousing ethnic sentiment against Brus and the Chief Electoral Officer gave an edge to the MNF to propagate its ethnic consciousness and engage in popular mobilisation.

Reading the Congress Defeat

The verdict of the Assembly elections was a humiliating defeat for the ruling Congress party which was in power for the last ten years. The Congress not only won just five seats but its incumbent Chief Minister LalThanhawla, contesting from Serchhip and Champhai South, lost in both the seats. In Serchip, his hometown, he was defeated by ZPM candidate Lalduhoma with a margin of 410 votes. In the Champhai South Constituency the MNF candidate T.J. Lalhuntlunga defeated him with a margin of 1049 votes. The crumbling of the Congress rule in Mizoram saw the collapse of the party in its last bastion of power in the North-East. The strong wave of anti-incumbency against the Congress which had enjoyed two terms in power under LalThanhawla coupled with the growing discontent of the Church and civil society organisations on lifting the two decade-old liquor ban by the Congress Govern-ment, the alleged rampant corruption and political favours given by the ruling party in its flagship programmes such as New Land Use Policy and New Economic Development Policy, the growing discontent of educated youth and the sustained campaign unleashed by the BJP for a Congress-mukt North-East went in favour of the MNF.

Perhaps one of the reasons for the humiliating defeat of the Congress was the waning of its flagship programmes introduced during its regime in the State. It may be recalled that during the chief ministership of LalThanhawla, the Congress Government launched these two flagship policies. The NLUP was launched in January 2011 to end the wasteful practice of the Jhum shifting cultivation, the process of clearing land by burning its natural vegetation before growing crops. The NEDP, a comprehensive growth strategy for Mizoram, was launched in 2016 to supplement the NLUP and was aimed at bringing a change in economic development. The policy intended to bring about a sea-change in the way priorities are placed in matters of economic development and governance so as to ensure that the State fully capitalises on the new opportunities placed before it. The NEDP addresses the problem of unproductive farming practices, improving public services, creating employment opportunities, improving public finances and business environment. It was also aimed at pushing a higher growth rate in the State and promoting skill development for the youth to enable them to secore a better livelihood. The NEDP gave a special thrust to entrepreneurship development for the youth. In 2013 the Congress was able to win for the second consecutive term due to its flagship programme of NLUP which changed the method of cultivation and the eking out of livelihood for a larger number of people. The programrme was able to usher in economic development in the landlocked State. It is argued that due to NEDP, the growth rate rose up to eight per cent during 2013-16. However, over the years these programmes failed to boost investment for infrastructure development in the State.

The second and most important reason for the poor performance of the Congress was the brewing public discontent against the govern-ment’s decision to lift the liquor ban in the State. Mizoram for a long time remained a dry State due to the liquor ban due to prohibition on sale and consumption of alcohol since the Mizoram Liquor Total Prohibition (MLTP) Act in 1997. The Church was not happy over the Congress Government’s decision to lift ban on liquor sale in the State. After 17 years the Congress Government lifted the ban as it decided to partially repeal the prohibition and brought in the Mizoram Liquor (Prohibition and Control) Bill 2014 to replace the old MLTP Act.

Thirdly, the growing dissident activities in the ruling Congress cost it dearly in the elections. It may be recalled that the Congress lost a Minister and handful MLAs ahead of the elections. It was further alleged that Chief Minister LalThanhawla was trying to install LalThanzara, his younger brother and the Health Minister, as the next Chief Minister.

Fourthly, the poor infrastructure, especially the bad conditions of roads, created a discontent among the people and this perhaps turned against the government.

The BJP’s Lateral Entry

The BJP, which came with the slogan of a Congress-free North-East and was hoping to repeat its saga in other North-Eastern States such as Nagaland, Manipur and Meghalaya, could win only one out of the 39 seats it contested in the State. Though the BJP is contesting elections in the State since 1993, it has not opened its account so far. In the 2013 elections, though it fielded 17 candidates, it could not win a single seat securing just 0.37 per cent of the votes. In the 2018 elections the BJP was trying to emerge as a potential substitute of both the MNF and Congress. It hoped that in the event of a fractured mandate like that of Meghalaya, it could emerge as a king-maker and align with the MNF in the government formation. Sensing the complexity in the formation of a government in the situation of fractured verdict, when the Governor can play a decisive role in inviting parties to form the government, the NDA Government at the Centre had chosen, Kummanam Rajasekharan, the BJP’s Kerala State unit President as the Governor of Mizoram a few months back.

The BJP could win only in the Tuichawng constituency where its candidate, Buddha Dhan Chakma, defeated his nearest MNF candidate, Rasik Mohan Chakma, by a margin of 1594 votes. In the Tuichawng constituency of Lawngtlai district, the only Assembly constituency under the Chakma Autonomous District Council (CADC), the sitting Congress legislator, Buddha Dhan Chakma, who was called the “Hema Malini Cheek Man”, quit the Congress and later joined the BJP. In 2013 B.D. Chakma, a doctor by qualification, won the seat as a Congress candidate by a margin of 8726 votes and was the only Minister from the minority Chakma community in the Congress Government. However, he had to resign from the Cabinet over the issue of denying quota for the Chakma students in medical colleges despite clearing the National Entrance and Eligibility Test. He became a target of criticism when he raised the issue of alleged racial discrimination of Chakmas by the State Government and became the centre of protest by the civil society organisations in the State. The resignation of B.D. Chakma boosted the morale of the BJP in the Chakma-inhabited areas as it saw him as a potential candidate to open its account in the Christian-dominated State.

The Chakmas belong primarily to the Buddhist minority Scheduled Tribe in Mizoram; they migrated from the Chittagong Hill Tracts of eastern Bangladesh due to religious persecution and are socially and politically marginalised. Though the overall literacy rate in the State is 91.58 per cent, the literacy rate among the Chakmas is around 45 per cent. To accommodate their concerns, the CADC was formed in 1972 under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution; this was opposed by the majority Mizos. In October 2018 the Mizo civil society groups passed a resolution demanding the abolition of the CADC as it became the breeding ground for infiltrators. It has to be reminded that the Chakma area witnessed frequent tension between the ethnic minority Chakmas and the dominant Mizos. The BJP was also able to exploit the political climate emerging out these ethnic tensions. For quite sometime, the BJP was firming up its footsteps in the CADC areas and even won a few seats in the CADC elections. In February 2015 the BJP for the first time, won 41 seats in the village council elections in the area. In the 2016 bye-elections in the CADC, the party won some seats and in the beginning of 2018 it could capture five of the 20 seats in the elections to the Council. It even secured the seat of the Chief Executive member. In the CADC area around 96 per cent of the population are Chakmas. For quite sometime, the BJP was wooing the Chakma and Brus voters in five Assembly constituencies of Mizoram—West Tuipui, Mamit, Tuichawng, Hacchek and Thorang. In fact, in the 2018 Assembly elections the Tripura unit of the BJP was made in charge of these constituencies and the Tripura Chief Minister, Biplab Deb, addressed an election rally in Kamalanagar, the headquarters of the CADC. The social combination of these five States are such that in Tuichawng, the Chakmas constitute 98 per cent of the population, Mamit 50 per cent voters are from Bru community and five per cent are Chakmas. In Hachhek, the Brus are 68 per cent and in Thorang, the Chakmas 30 per cent and Brus constitute around 27 per cent; in West Tuipui, the Chakmas are around 80 per cent. The two Chakma majority-constituencies are West Tuipui and Tuichawng. In the Assembly election campaign, the BJP highlighted the socio-economic and political deprivation of the Chakmas and promised direct funding to the CADC to minimise its dependence on the State Government.

Like the Chakmas, the BJP is also attentive to the issues of the Brus (Reang tribe) ethnic minority community practising Vaishnav Hinduism and animistic beliefs in Mizoram. It may be pointed out that the Brus migrated and settled in the six relief camps in Tripura after the ethnic clashes with the majority Mizos in 1997. The last two years witnessed the process of repatriation of the displaced Brus to Mizoram through a tripartite agreement between the Government of India and the governments of Mizoram and Tripura. The BJP highlighted the Brus issue in the electoral campaign. The BJP also adopted a proactive stand on the issue of repatriation of Brus from Tripura and was critical the Congress Government’s cold attitude to the repatriation issue. It alleged that the Congress Government opposed the Brus’ demands for the creation of area development councils for the Brus. The BJP promised that if it comes to power in the State, all problems of the Brus and other tribals would be solved. Among all the Brus refugees, only a little over 11,232 immigrants are eligible to vote. In the Assembly elections, 15 special pooling booths were set up in Kanhmun, a village just across the State border in Mizoram, to enable the migrated Brus in Tripura to cast their votes. The BJP Government in Tripura arranged transport for voters and the Brus in Tripura travelled between 76 km (Hazachesra camp) and 56 km (Nasingpara camp) to cast their votes. However, the election results show that the BJP’s effort to bring the Brus into its fold did not yield much result. Even in the Brus-dominated constituencies, such as Mamit, the BJP could not secure seats.

To conclude, the MNF’s success is the victory of the regional forces against the Congress; it should not be interpreted as the victory of the BJP. The BJP was hoping to replicate the Meghalaya model of government formation in Mizoram but it miserably failed as the MNF not only ditched the NEDA before the elections but also secured majority on its own in the Assembly.

Further, a postmortem analysis of the election results show that the 59 independents who contested in 39 constituencies and the Zoram People’s Movement, an alliance of non-Congress and non-MNF parties, which contested 35 seats, in fact cut the votes of the Congress more than the MNF. Over and above, the victory of the MNF is a negative vote against the Congress which failed to rise up to the expectations of the people in the hilly State of Mizoram.

Dr V. Bijukumar is an Associate Professor, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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