An experimental political choice by the Mizo electorate

The remarkable electoral success of the Zoram People’s Movement highlights an undercurrent of electoral transformation in Mizoram

December 06, 2023 12:10 am | Updated 12:44 am IST

An elderly voter casting his vote in the Mizoram Assembly elections

An elderly voter casting his vote in the Mizoram Assembly elections | Photo Credit: ANI

The ninth Mizoram Assembly election results, 2023, mark both a continuity and a change in Mizoram’s electoral politics. Like in the past, this election not only leveraged a multiparty electoral contest within the framework of what Balveer Arora in a different context calls the ‘binodal’ system but also ensured that the Mizo National Front (MNF) lost after a term in power. In other words, this system perpetuates a system of a ‘revolving door’ wherein an alternate party has come to power in every one or two-election cycle since 1987. The impressive win by the Zoram People’s Movement (ZPM), a regionalist party formed in 2017 and registered with the Election Commission of India barely four years ago — it won 27 seats and an over 37% vote share — is a spectacular improvement from its tally of eight seats and a 22% vote share in 2018. This marks a break from the past.

An interesting break from the past

Unlike in the past, where the binodal electoral contest was always between a national party and regionalist parties, this election pivoted around a contest between two rival regionalist parties, i.e., the ZPM and the MNF. The Congress was reduced to a status of a bit player and managed to get just one seat out of the 40 seats being contested. Yet, the Congress’s ability to retain a 20.8% vote share suggests the fluid possibilities of a binodal electoral contest in the future. Again, unlike the past where Mizoram broadly follows the ‘small State syndrome’ where a similar party or a party in coalition with the party-in-power at the Centre is voted to power in a State because of its dependence on the Centre’s financial largesse, this election defies this and marks an experimental political choice by Mizo electorates by ensuring the ZPM’s victory. This presents an interesting electoral puzzle.

Under this rubric, the way the ZPM managed to penetrate and consolidate its electoral purchase across the State is remarkable given that Mizoram’s electoral landscape is marked by a fairly stable party support-base. While the saliency of anti-incumbency against the MNF after being in power for a term is apparent, a key explanation to this is the emergence of a new opportunity structure opened by the diminished electoral appeal of the Congress. In this sense, Mizoram follows a similar pattern of electoral contests between regionalist parties that was set by Nagaland since 2013. The failure of the Congress to promote popular and charismatic leaders such as S.C. Jamir in Nagaland post the election in 2013, and Lal Thanhawla in Mizoram since this election have important bearings on its electoral purchase. The electoral space vacated by the Congress in Mizoram is apparent (it struggled to secure a seat and was in a distant second position in six constituencies). The only exception is the Thorang constituency where Zodintluanga Ralte, a Congress candidate, lost by a whisker of 62 votes against his MNF counterpart, R. Rohmingliana.

The ZPM’s strategy

Against this backdrop, the ZPM successfully presents itself as a viable and attractive electoral alternative to the MNF for efficient and ‘corruption-free’ governance. By fielding a mixture of experienced, educated and star-packed candidates including Lalduhoma (a former decorated Indian Police Service officer who effectively used his proximity to the Gandhi family and central political leaders in the 1980s to broker peace in Mizoram), Jeje Lalpekhlua (national football player), Baryl Vanneihsangi (radio jockey and municipal councillor), and Vanlalsailova (gospel singer who eventually lost by 292 votes), the party could effectively send out the right political vibes to the electorate.

Editorial | Civic victory: On the Mizoram Assembly election results

In a regionalist space where ethnicity, development and governance issues overlap across parties, the ZPM skilfully projected its commitment to promote the Zo nationalist cause and aspirations and wove these together with a vision of governance reform and development initiatives. Although Mr. Lalduhoma does not articulate Zo nationalism and aspirations with a rhetorical flourish like Mr. Zoramthanga, his stellar commitment and association with the Zo nationalist’ cause under the banner of the Action for Peace Committee (1986), the Zoram Nationalist Party (Mizo National Front (Nationalist) since 1997), and now the ZPM, is seen by many as genuine and an invaluable asset — a reward and recognition for what is long overdue.

Apparently, the ZPM’s promise for minimum support price for rural cash crops such as broom grass, chillis, ginger, and turmeric has also gained electoral traction as over 60% of the Mizo continue to rely on agricultural income. This becomes compelling especially in light of recent reports by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India exposing the inefficacy and irregularities in the rural development programme under the New Land Use Policy launched by the Congress (and replicated by the MNF without much success). These reports and the continued precarity of farmers’ economy in rural Mizoram was effectively used by the ZPM to galvanise a groundswell of support for its pet development project aimed at alleviating poverty and raising rural income.

The ZPM’s subtle political messaging to arraign the MNF for its alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party and the latter’s failure to protect Christian minorities and Zo (Kuki-Zomi) people in Manipur since the outbreak of violence from May 3 seem to have worked in its favour. Indubitably, this has helped the ZPM in neutralising the MNF’s attempt to electorally appropriate the protection and rehabilitation it extended to over 40,000 Chin refugees who fled from the February 2021 military coup de etat in Myanmar, and over 12,000 Zo (Kuki-Zomi) internally displaced persons from Manipur’s violence since early May.

The Opposition cannot be taken for granted

The remarkable electoral success of the ZPM certainly presents an undercurrent of electoral transformation in Mizoram which simultaneously leverages continuity and a subtle yet definitive break with the past. Although the resounding loss of the MNF is apparent in the convincing defeat of Zoramthanga and Tawnluia, the topmost leaders, and the 10 seats it managed to secure, Mizoram’s binodal electoral landscape is likely to remain fluid as the MNF continues to enjoy an over 35% vote share and manage a second place in 28 constituencies.

Given the considerable electoral support the Congress and the MNF enjoy in the State, the nature of the electoral contest will largely be a function of the ability of these parties to revive their organisation and inculcate popular leaders beyond Lal Thanhawla and Zoramthanga. Till then the jury is out if Mr. Lalduhoma, the incumbent Chief Minister, will successfully harness his previously rich experience to forge a new equation or tacit agreement with the BJP at the Centre in ways which help steer Mizoram as an autonomous ‘corruption-free’ State.

Kham Khan Suan Hausing is Professor of Political Science at the University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad.

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