Will The Last Bastion of Congress In North East Fall Today?

Will The Last Bastion of Congress In North East Fall Today?

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Nov 28, 2018 04:18 PM +05:30 IST
Will The Last Bastion of Congress In North East Fall Today?Mizoram Chief Minnister Lal Thanhawla
  • The Congress has been unseated from power in the remaining states of the North East.

    Mizoram is the last Congress-ruled state in the region, and a defeat here would translate into an enormous loss of face and prestige for the party.

As the tiny northeastern state of Mizoram, with its 7.7 lakh voters - half that of Delhi’s Chandni Chowk Lok Sabha constituency - goes to the polls today, the Congress finds its very survival in the region at stake. This Christian-majority state, which shares its border with Bangladesh and Myanmar, is the last citadel of the Congress in the North East, a region that the Congress had always considered its fief. And, thus, it is a highly prestigious battle for the Congress; losing Mizoram would deal a debilitating blow to the party’s image.

The Congress’ Lal Thanhawla has ruled Mizoram for 20 of the 31 years since Mizoram became a full-fledged state in February 1987, while the Mizo National Front (MNF) ruled for the remaining years. This time, apart from a strong anti-incumbency, the Congress is also battling charges of large-scale corruption, administrative apathy and failure to improve the state’s crumbling infrastructure. And the Congress had also faced a tough challenge not only from a buoyant MNF, but also an aggressive Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP (which drew a blank in the last assembly polls in 2013) and two new political formations - the Zoram People's Movement (ZPM) and PRISM, an anti-corruption watchdog that morphed into a political party. The Mizoram People's Conference (MPC), though a very small player, is also ranged against the Congress.

While PRISM carried out a high-voltage campaign against the Congress, accusing the party and Lal Thanhawla of being corrupt, ZPM had taken on the Congress for lifting prohibition in 2015 in the face of stiff opposition from the powerful Church and civil society organisations. The MNF’s vow to reimpose prohibition had also found strong endorsement from the Church, which holds that alcoholism is a social evil that had destroyed many Mizo families in the past. The BJP, which is contesting from 39 of the 40 assembly seats in the state, had promised to usher in much-needed development for the state and Prime Minister Modi and party chief Amit Shah’s election campaigns in Mizoram had evoked very good response.

The Congress had suffered a body blow with five of its top leaders, including the home minister in Lal Thanhawla ministry (R Lalzirliana) and health minister (L Sailo), junior minister B D Chakma as well as assembly speaker Hiphei, quitting the party. Lalzirliana and Sailo joined the MNF while Hiphei and Chakma joined the BJP. The ZPM and the PRISM are expected to cut into Congress votes and as the election campaign showed, PRISM captured the imagination of young voters with its strong anti-corruption pitch.

The Congress has been unseated from power in the remaining states of the North East; it faced humiliating defeats in the assembly polls in Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura, while in Arunachal Pradesh, it has been reduced to a non-entity with nearly en masse defections from its ranks to the BJP. The Congress doesn’t have much of an existence in Sikkim. All these seven states are now ruled by constituents of the BJP-affiliated North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA). Mizoram is the last Congress-ruled state in the region, and a defeat here would translate into an enormous loss of face and prestige for the party.

The odds against the Congress are formidable. Apart from its poor track record in governance that has alienated the masses, the power Church is unhappy with it for lifting prohibition. While the PRISM and ZPM are expected to have cut into Congress votes, the Zoram Thar - a party formed by evangelists - is also believed to have harmed the Congress’ prospects in some constituencies. The National People's Party (NPP) - it heads the ruling coalition (of which the BJP is a constituent) in Meghalaya and is a minor partner in the ruling coalitions in Nagaland and Manipur - has also thrown its hat into the ring in Mizoram. NNP chief (and Meghalaya Chief Minister) Conrad Sangma’s anti-Congress electoral campaigns here had evoked a good response.

Mizoram - the only Indian state to have been bombed by the Indian Air Force (IAF) on orders from then prime minister Indira Gandhi on 5 and 6 March 1966 - had done well on various development parameters since it became a state after the 1986 Mizo Accord that brought an end to insurgency in the state. But it has, of late, fallen behind, thanks to misgovernance and corruption. The number of people below poverty line has risen from 15.4 per cent to 20.4 per cent since 2011. Dropout rates at the primary and secondary levels are very high at 15.36 per cent and 30.67 per cent respectively, much higher than the national average of 6.35 per cent and 19.89 per cent respectively. Development is lopsided with some districts like Serchhip (incumbent chief minister Lal Thanhawla’s home district) being favoured over others. Unemployment and underemployment is very high, job creation negligible and agriculture is ailing. Roads and other physical infrastructure is in a mess and specialised healthcare remains out of reach of most. The Congress, which has been in power for a long time in the state, is being blamed for all this.

This is not to say, however, that the BJP will have a smooth sailing in Mizoram. The party faces the obvious ‘stigma’ of being a Hindutva party in a Christian-majority state. The Congress had highlighted the “anti-beef agenda” of the BJP. Also, the BJP does not have much of an organisational structure in the state. The BJP realised this and, perhaps, that is why it scaled down its own projections from emerging as the single-largest party to winning a substantial number of seats that will enable it to play the role of king-maker. NEDA convenor and BJP strongman from Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, admitted this recently when he said that no party would be able to form the next government in Mizoram without the help of the BJP. His prediction, say poll observers, may well turn out to be prophetic with most pollsters forecasting a hung assembly.

In the likely event of a hung assembly, even if the Congress emerges as the largest party, it may not find it easy to form the government for many reasons. The MNF, ZPM, PRISM and MPC had all campaigned vociferously against the Congress and all those who would have voted for these parties would have also voted against the Congress. Thus, these parties would find it very difficult, if not politically suicidal, to join hands with the scam-tainted Congress or extend overt or covert support to the Congress to enable the party form the next government in Mizoram. These parties would find it counterproductive to associate with the Congress, which has been accused of largescale corruption and misgovernance. Also, the BJP’s Himanta Biswa Sarma is a master at cobbling together post-poll coalitions and is an aggressive and quick-footed player. Congress leaders, even those from Delhi, will find it difficult to match his skills, as they had discovered in Manipur and then Meghalaya.

But more than all this, an important takeaway from the elections in Mizoram is the completely peaceful nature of the entire poll process. And the prime driver in this is Mizo people’s Forum (MPF) (read this), a Church-backed civil society body that acts as an election watchdog and enforces a code of conduct that is much stricter than the one issued by the Election Commission of India. The MPF’s code bars use of loudspeakers, processions, large rallies and sponsoring feats by candidates. The code restricts the sizes and numbers of posters, banners, buntings and leaflets that can be printed, pasted and put out by candidates and parties, while use of social media by the parties is strictly monitored. The MPF, headed by Reverend Lalbiakmawia, was founded in 2006 to help the ECI conduct peaceful and fair polls in the state, and it finds strong community support.

Before polls, the MPF enters into partnership agreements with the political parties and Independent candidates that makes it binding on the latter to adhere to the code of conduct. This agreement also makes it obligatory for political parties to field only those candidates who “do not have any record of infidelity”, stay away from alcohol and other addictions, and are morally upright. The MPF assigns its volunteers to accompany candidates on their door-to-door campaigns to ensure that the candidates do not distribute goodies or make false promises to voters. And on the day of polling (like today), MPF volunteers provide drinking water to voters, lay out benches for them to sit on and assist the ailing and elderly to the booths to cast their votes.

Thanks to the MPF, the only major ‘poll violation’ reported this time was the ‘ungenteel’ act of a procession of vehicles full of Congress supporters blaring horns and creating loud noises while passing by a poll rally being addressed by a ZPM candidate! The Congress drew widespread condemnation and had to apologise.

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