The victory of the Mizo National Front (MNF) in the 2018 Mizoram assembly elections, perhaps, comes as no surprise to close observers of the political process in the state. Mizoram has a history, since 1989, of voting out the government after two terms. The Congress government of Lalthanhawla was seeking a third term. So the big surprise is the extent of the Congress defeat (from 34 seats in 2013 to five in 2018, none of them being major constituencies) — the chief minister lost both the constituencies he contested from — revealing the scale of the unpopularity of the incumbent government.
Despite the thumping victory, there were many factors in the 2018 elections that had made the MNF insecure. One, of course, was the entry of the BJP in the contest. Under J V Hluna, a professor who has been a member of all the major parties in Mizoram, the BJP came to acquire a legitimate face. Political and monetary backing, the inroads it had made in the Northeast, the use of social media, all made its presence a very real one. The entry of the BJP also triggered debates around religious affiliations. While the church in Mizoram has played an important part in setting the tone for free and fair elections, and has held an opinion regarding prohibition, the entry of the BJP brought about new cleavages around religious associations and identity.
The second important factor was the rise of the Zoram People’s Movement (ZPM) with Lalduhawma (a former IPS officer) as chief ministerial candidate. The ZPM saw the coming together of two regional parties, the Zoram National Party (led by Lalduhawma himself) and Mizoram People’s Conference of the late Brigadier T Sailo, and supported by retired pastors of various denominations. The ZPM was hopeful of a strong showing in the elections. It had the reputation of being non-corrupt, not having been in power before, and hoped to benefit from the anti-Congress wave and anti-MNF sentiment. It seems to have gained some traction, emerging as the second-largest party and finishing a close second in many constituencies. The 2018 elections in Mizoram indicate the possibility of a three-party contest emerging in a state that has mostly witnessed bi-polar contests.
The Congress’s defeat can be attributed mainly to anti-incumbency, accentuated by the lack of development in the state. Although large corruption scandals did not emerge during its tenure, the Congress’s development model in the form of New Land Use Policy and the New Economic Development Policy, which essentially came down to giving financial aid to individuals to start small businesses or small scale agro-based units at the expense of infrastructural development, especially roads, does not seem to have paid off.
Closer to the elections, there were many defections including that of the vice-president of the party and home minister R Lalzirliana to the MNF and the speaker of the assembly, Hiphei, to the BJP, suggesting a lack of inner-party democracy and acrimony, caused by the growing influence of the extended family of Lalthanhawla in the government and the party.
Closer to the elections, however, issues of development or unemployment ceded space to ethnic mobilisations. The 2018 election shows that even in states that have been largely peaceful for more than three decades, ethnic issues can take the centrestage in the blink of an eye. Just ahead of polling, there were massive ethnic mobilisations under the aegis of the Young Mizo Association, centred on the perceived threat of changes to the state’s ethnic composition, allegedly facilitated by the former chief electoral officer. Who gained from this is not known, although the BJP seems to have lost out on that front.
Not a single woman has been elected to the assembly in this election. It’s interesting to note that the Northeast, which traditionally has had higher literacy rates for women than the rest of the country, still finds it difficult to get women MLAs. While the BJP has not become a dominant voice, they have been able to make a mark by winning a seat for the very first time in the state’s history.
The 2018 elections also suggest that the state does not follow the national trend or even trends in the Northeast. While the Congress has gained ground in three other states that went to the polls, it suffered a massive defeat in Mizoram. And, while the BJP has been making inroads into the Northeast, Mizoram rejected it. The last two elections in Mizoram have witnessed large voter turnouts (over 80 per cent), suggesting a deep public involvement in the political processes.
However, the people of Mizoram are likely to remember this election for two reasons: One, as a heated election in recent times, mainly due to the use of social media and two, as an election that brought a large number of non-governmental players to the forefront of the election process.