In what can be seen as a replay and entrenchment of past electoral patterns, the Mizo National Front (MNF), under the leadership of Zoramthanga, returned to power in Mizoram after two tenures of Congress rule (2008-13 and 2013-18). The 2018 Assembly results have an uncanny similarity with the 2008 elections — then the incumbent chief minister, Zoramthanga, lost in two constituencies against Congress candidates, much like the outcome that has befallen Congress CM Lal Thanhawla in the recently concluded elections. In fact, a distinctive marker of Mizoram’s electoral pattern is that no party has ever successfully returned to power for three consecutive terms.
In some sense, Mizoram’s electoral way resembles the state’s traditional practice of jhum cultivation: The site of cultivation shifts after the completion of one or, at the most, two years, as the fertility of the soil erodes over time. The Mizo’s instinctive search for a new cultivation site after every jhum cycle for a bountiful harvest is a useful guide to understand why the state experiments with an alternate party every third electoral cycle.
What makes the 2018 election results particularly interesting is the fact that Lal Thanhawla was defeated by T J Lalnuntluanga, a debutant MNF candidate in Champhai South, and, more remarkably, by Lalduhoma, the leader of Zoram People’s Movement (ZPM) in Serchhip. Lal Thanhawla’s defeat to a political novice, or for that matter, the dismal performance of the Congress (it secured only five seats), can be attributed to his hubris in the run up to the elections, expulsions of prominent leaders and the poor record of his government in building roads, providing employment and delivering on development. His self-certification that his government did not fare any worse than the neighbouring states in addressing the pitiable road conditions was seen as a sign of hubris.
The surge of unemployment in the state, reported by the state’s labour and employment department to have reached 64,281 in early 2018 (of which Aizawl alone accounts for 47,811), was also gainfully exploited by the MNF and ZPM to wean away ambitious employment-seeking youth from the Congress. By roping in Robert Romawia Royte, the Aizawl FC manager, and promising better sports infrastructure, the MNF ensured that the electoral dice rolled in its favour. In a belated attempt, the government put in place a New Economic Development Policy (NEDP) in March 2016 to address the failure of New Land Use Policy (NLUP) — its pet programme launched in 2011 to arrest poverty, secure sustaining rural livelihoods, development and impart market-friendly skills. NEDP could not sufficiently enthuse the voters as NLUP could in the 2013 elections. The desertion from the Congress of influential leaders like Lalzirliana, then home minister, and B D Chakma also led to considerable realignment of members across parties as various branch-level Congress leaders joined MNF, ZPM or the BJP. The MNF and ZPM respectively harvested five and six of the 11 urban seats in Aizawl alone as a consequence.
The defeat of the Congress and the return of the MNF is also largely due to the impressive performance of the ZPM under Lalduhoma, a retired IPS officer. The ZPM won a total of eight seats in the 40-member Assembly, decisively occupying the electoral space of the Congress, and in the process, indirectly helping the MNF.
The ZPM is a nascent umbrella group formed by the Zoram Nationalist Party (ZNP), Mizoram People’s Conference (MPC) and Zoram Exodus Movement, whose members are influential individuals having diverse backgrounds. The ZPM’s brand of activism made effective use of social media, the right to information and the courts through a series of public interest litigations (PIL) to expose corruption and misgovernance, and, caught the imagination of the urban and semi-urban elites. The significant vote share of the ZPM has certainly opened up a new vista for the emergence of a third front in Mizo electoral politics.
While the ZPM has redefined the contours of “binodal” electoral competition, it is not clear whether it is an AAP (Aam Aadmi Party)-like moment in Mizoram, given the considerable vote share the Congress continues to enjoy, despite its abysmal seat performance. It may be pertinent to note the uninspiring seat performance of the MNF in the 2008 and 2013 elections when it secured three and five seats respectively, despite winning 30.65 and 28.65 per cent of the votes cast. The jury is out on whether the Congress’s recent attempts to integrate the ZPM into its fold can stymie the rise of the latter as a formidable third front in the future, and prepare the ground for its return in the next elections.