Rahul Gandhi’s high-octane election campaign spread over two full days in Mizoram — which goes to the polls on 7 November — has sent an unmistakable message that the Congress Party is as serious about wresting the least-populated state in the remote northeast as it is about winning Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Telangana in the mainland.
Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramathanga, who is also president of the ruling Mizo National Front (MNF), has a tough fight on his hands as power in the largely Christian state has swung between the Congress and MNF since way back in 1989.
Congress’ Lal Thanhwala, now in his 80s, was sworn in as CM in 1989 and 1993, followed by Zoramathanga in 1998 and 2003; Thanhwala was back in the saddle in 2008 and 2013, but Zoramathanga won in 2018 and is now eyeing a second successive term.
Paradoxically, Zoramathanga is having to contend not only with the Congress but also the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) despite being a BJP ally!
Zoramathanga Needs the Christian Vote
As things stand, the MNF is a partner in the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA).
But the partnership has become a huge liability in Mizoram — where Christians not only account for more than 87 percent of the population but are in an overwhelming majority in eight out of eight districts — after the massacre and rape of Kuki Christians and destruction of churches in Manipur since May under the aegis of the “double-engine” BJP government in Imphal and Delhi.
At a time when Christians across India, and especially in the northeast, are very angry with the BJP, Zoramathanga’s survival depends on Christian votes.
So the wily 79-year-old CM is trying his best to create a firewall between his MNF and the BJP — and is praying that it works.
To distance himself from the BJP — despite being an NDA and NEDA partner — Zoramathanga has marched alongside Mizo Christians in Aizawl in solidarity with Kukis, and even demanded a separate administration for Kukis to shield them from Meitei Hindus, angering Manipur’s BJP CM Biren Singh, who is believed to have even complained to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah about Zoramathaga’s meddling in Manipur’s internal affairs.
Kukis and Mizos are from the same ethnic stock – and so are the displaced Chins from Myanmar. The MNF government is not only providing food and a roof to Kuki and Chin refugees but has bluntly refused to carry out the Centre’s order to collect biometric data of Chins, to build its Christian constituency in the run-up to the polls.
Will Mizoram's Christians Rally Behind the MNF?
Moreover, to champion the Christian cause, Zoramathanga issued specific instructions to MNF Lok Sabha MP C Lalrosanga and Rajya Sabha MP K Vanlalvena, not to miss any opportunity to highlight the persecution of Kukis on the floor of Parliament. During the monsoon session, MNF went to the extent of supporting the Opposition’s no-confidence motion against the BJP government centered on the mishandling of Manipur.
And to distinguish itself from the BJP even more in the eyes of the Mizoram electorate, the Mizoram Assembly recently passed a resolution against BJP’s Uniform Civil Code (UCC) proposal and also adopted a resolution opposing the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act, 2023 passed by Parliament recently.
It is left to be seen whether all this will be enough to sway Mizoram’s Christians this time to rally behind the MNF which won 26 out of 40 seats five years ago, while the Congress had bagged only 5 and the Zoram People’s Movement (ZPM) only eight. ZPM, led by retired Indian Police Service officer Lalduhoma, is essentially positioned as an alternative to the MNF and has done surprisingly well in urban local bodies’ polls recently.
A triangular contest is on the cards as the trio is once again raring to go and has fielded candidates in all 40 seats.
In contrast, the BJP which won one seat in 2018, doesn’t seem to fancy its chances and has nominated candidates only in 23 seats, significantly 16 less than last time.
Its campaign so far has been very low-key given its near pariah status due to the targeting of Kukis neighbouring Manipur, which Christian leaders describe as a state-backed genocide that has figured even in the European Parliament embarrassing New Delhi. BJP President J P Nadda is scheduled to fly in on 25 October Modi is expected on 30 October to appeal to voters and lift the party’s evidently low morale.
Congress vs MNF vs ZPM
Gandhi’s statements in Mizoram made national headlines as he charged Modi with giving priority to Israel over Manipur.
Moreover, the Congress leaders portrayed MNF and ZPM as BJP-RSS fronts and warned Mizos not to be fooled by their rhetoric and glib talk about protecting religious and linguistic minorities. He also harped on his father, former PM Rajiv Gandhi’s contribution to Mizoram’s rise by signing a peace accord.
The MNF returned the fire by recalling the Congress-run Centre using helicopter gunships to subdue Mizo rebels.
The Congress is without its tallest Mizo leader and five-time CM Thanhawla who has stepped back from politics. His replacement, the new Congress chief, Lalswata, naturally lacks the icon’s charisma and penetrative knowledge of Mizo sentiments. One of the smartest moves Gandhi made in Aizawl was to make an unannounced trip by two-wheeler to Thanhawla’s home to pay his respects and seek advice to recapture Mizoram.
As the Mizoram polls are being held in the shadow of a sectarian cataclysm in next-door Manipur still festering in its sixth month, it is bound to weigh heavily on voters’ minds as they exercise their franchise and will decide the fortunes of all the parties in the fray. The party that reads the undercurrents and crosscurrents swirling around the northeast best will be the victor.
(SNM Abdi is a distinguished journalist and ex-Deputy Editor of Outlook. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)