One interesting postulate in election studies is that small states with less than 100 assembly seats are likely to swing in favour of the ruling party(ies) at the national level. That this is not always a given is borne out by the mixed performance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Assam (2016), Manipur (2017), Meghalaya (2018), Nagaland (2018), and Tripura (2018) elections. While the BJP secured a comfortable majority in Tripura, it had to forge pre-poll and post-poll coalitions in Assam and Manipur to form governments. And, the BJP remains a junior partner respectively to the National People’s Party and the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party led-coalitions in Meghalaya and Nagaland.

Against this backdrop, the 28 November 2018 assembly election in Mizoram attracted unusual media attention because it is seen as the last bastion of the Congress and a final battle for the BJP to actualize its “Congress-mukt North-East/Bharat" project. Underscoring this, polity-wide parties like the Congress and the BJP have already roped in Rahul Gandhi, Rajnath Singh, Amit Shah, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the election campaign.

Given the ability of the BJP to navigate electoral outcomes in its favour in NorthEast India in particular and in mainland India in general through political manoeuvring—engineering post-election splits within opponent party(ies) in Arunachal Pradesh in 2015-16, for example—some analysts have sanguine expectations about the prospects of the BJP coming to power in Mizoram.

BJP’s limited appeal

However, unlike Assam, Manipur and Tripura, the BJP has not succeeded in creating a cadre-based organization in Mizoram. After securing a debut vote share of 3.11% in 1993, BJP’s vote share has diminished successively overtime to reach 0.37% in 2013, its lowest share ever. Apparently, Christian majority voters in Mizoram continue to largely see the BJP and its Hindutva project as “alien", if not antithetical to their Christian ethos, values and culture. Extensive media reports of attacks on Christian minorities in different parts of India and the concerted attempts by the various Hindutva brigades to forcibly impose beef ban reinforced the fear and sense of insecurity of the Mizos, which in turn forecloses widespread acceptability of the BJP in the state.

The recent defection of two influential Congress ministers—B.D. Chakma and Hiphei—to the BJP is considered to increase the latter’s chance in the Chakma and Mara dominated areas. Given that translates into just two seats, this suggests that the BJP continues to have limited prospect in the state. The BJP also lacks popular leaders in Mizoram who could pose a spirited challenge to the Congress and the Mizo National Front (MNF), the “binodal" poles around which multiparty electoral competition in the state revolves.

The recent proposal by J.V. Hluna—the state BJP president who won as an independent candidate in 1993 but lost the 1998 elections on a Mizoram People’s Conference ticket—to forge a Congress-BJP post-poll alliance in the event of fragmented verdict is a testament to this fait accompli. Although Hluna’s proposal caused unease among the more ambitious BJP members, it was informed both by a realistic assessment of the emerging electoral trend and a recent precedent where the BJP forged a coalition with the Congress to stop the MNF from coming to power in the Chakma Autonomous District Council in April 2018.

Despite having participated in five successive assembly elections since 1993, the BJP has not succeeded in opening an account in the assembly. While all candidates except one each forfeited their security deposit in the 1993, 1998 and 2003 elections, all the 17 and 9 BJP candidates in 2008 and 2013 elections respectively forfeited their deposit. The performance of the BJP in the past is not very reassuring.

Mizo’s electoral way

When the “mood of the nation" largely seems to inexorably swing towards the BJP, why is it that electoral politics in Mizoram continues to remain insular to the BJP onslaught and continues to have a “rhythm and logic" of its own? —to borrow an evocative phrase of Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar in their Ten Thesis on State Politics. At the heart of this is Mizo’s distinctive electoral way which leverages a multiparty competition around what Balveer Arora, in the national context, calls a “binodal system".

The Mizoram People’s Conference (MPC) and the Congress constituted the two poles of electoral competition under this system broadly from 1972 (when Mizoram began to have an assembly under its upgraded Union territory status) through 1989 with disparate independents and small parties as fringe competitors. MPC has been substituted by MNF since the 1989 elections, the first election after Mizoram attained statehood in 1986. Under this rubric the Mizo exercise “effective political choice" in ways which would not only help localize their distinctive electoral interest and agenda within the broad national framework but also leverage Mizo identity and aspirations.

So the pertinent question in the 28 November 2018 election is not whether the BJP has a chance of coming to power in Mizoram. Rather one should ask whether the Congress under Lal Thanhawla’s leadership has the ability to forestall the MNF and in the process capture Mizo’s “effective political choice" to defy the odds of Mizo’s distinctive electoral way under which no party has ever returned to power for a third consecutive term?

Congress’ and MNF’s prospects

Although the Congress has significantly improved its seat and vote share respectively from 32 seats and 38.89% in 2008 to 34 seats and 44.63% in 2013 — the highest vote share recorded in Mizoram’s electoral history—it looks increasingly vulnerable to the challenge posed by the resurgent MNF and Zoram People’s Movement, a coalition formed by MPC, Zoram Nationalist Party, and Zoram Exodus Movement.

Two main explanations are in order. Firstly, dissension within the ranks of the Congress has considerably dented its electoral appeal even as five prominent leaders have resigned from the Congress in the last couple of months. Moreover, the resignation of R. Lalzirliana, the home minister and then vice president of the state Congress, to join the MNF has boosted the morale of the MNF cadres. Lalzirliana’s resignation stemmed from his public protestation about the lukewarm response of the party leadership to accommodate the popular demand to form a separate Saitual district from Aizawl district which includes Tawi, his electoral constituency.

The short shrift given to Lalzirliana and his constituency was also seen as a signal by chief minister Lal Thanhawla to promote his younger brother Lalthanzara at the expense of the former, an instance used by Lal Thanhawla’s critics as an exemplar of the lack of internal democracy within the Congress. The change of party loyalty by Lalzirliana has caused significant realignments within and across the party branches as many branch-level Congress leaders joined the MNF as a consequence. The full impact of these realignments on the possible return of MNF is yet to be seen.

Secondly, the Congress is increasingly seen to be weak and corrupt. The failure to bring about tangible development and progress especially roads, agriculture and employment are attributed to the government’s weakness and corruption. This, in turn, has caused widespread disenchantment with the Congress. People have taken umbrage at Lal Thanhawla’s oft excuse for the poor road conditions to the vagaries of the monsoon rains and his self-certification that Mizoram’s roads are not worse off when compared with other states of North-East India.

The enthusiasm with which his government launched its flagship programme called the New Land Use Policy (NLUP) since January 2011 has ended up as just another platform of extending patron-client network without achieving tangible transformations in rural livelihoods. Disappointed with the lack of transparency in selecting beneficiaries of NLUP, Vanramchhuangi, a social activist, filed a PIL in the Aizawl Bench of the Gauhati high court to stall NLUP this August, albeit without success.

The disbursal of up to 1 lakh to targeted rural agriculturalists under this programme has not generated new skills and sustainable source of livelihoods which would wean them away from their reliance on jhum cultivation.

That NLUP has failed to tackle livelihood problems is brought out by the State’s Labour and Employment Department in January this year when it reports that 64,281 persons are registered as unemployed in the four employment exchanges of Mizoram, of which the city of Aizawl alone accounts for 47,811. The Congress government sought to overcome NLUP’s limitation by coming out with a more ambitious New Economic Development Policy (NEDP) in summer 2016 to inject economic growth and development while at the same time imparting marketable skills to generate more productive economic activities.

While the tangible effects of NEDP on voting patterns are yet to be seen, the failure to address infrastructural bottlenecks in roads, unemployment and sustainable livelihood projects during its two consecutive terms may considerably hamper the Congress to return with a comfortable majority.

This is not to suggest, however, that MNF would have an easy ride to power. Although dissension within the Congress has already emasculated its strength in five electoral seats, the collateral damage that these might have on other seats are not clear. MNF, under the leadership of Zoramthanga, does not inspire much confidence unlike earlier times as it carries the past baggage of being corrupt, an image it accumulated during its two terms in power between 1998-2003, and 2003-2008.

Zoramthanga’s rhetorical flourishes and his nationalist appeals are no longer seen as his strength. The recent entry of Robert Romawia Royte, the Aizawl Football Club manager into MNF is also considered to have enthused soccer-loving youths, but Royte is facing a formidable opponent. The recent favourable overtures by the Hmar and Paite, two minority tribes which are decisive in at least two electoral seats, have also boosted the MNF’s electoral chance. Although the MNF sets its optics on capturing the imagination of the youth and promise for development, it faces an onerous task of translating these into actual votes.

A game changer?

A possible game changer which left the electoral field wide open is the Chuaungo-Shashank controversy over the Bru question. Although Lal Thanhawla’s government signed an agreement with the Tripura government, government of India and Mizoram Bru Displaced Peoples Forum on 3 July 2018 to repatriate the 32,876 identified Bru refugees in six Tripura camps, the Mizo-Bru relations continue to be marked by what Roluahpuia, a local scholar, calls “mistrust and suspicion". S.B. Shashank, the chief electoral officer (CEO) of Mizoram’s complaint that Lalnunmawia Chuaungo, the state principal secretary (home)’s attempt to block the CEO’s effort to recognize identity slips of Bru repatriates as voter identity cards amounted to ‘direct interference’ into the election process must be seen against this.

Not surprisingly, Shashank’s complaint generated massive Mizo nationalist mobilization against him in particular and the Brus in general which led to his replacement. The deft manner in which Lal Thanhawla handled this affair—and the Aizawl bench of the Gauhati high court’s recent order to stay granting of voting right to 218 Brus who were registered in the electoral roll on 27 October 2018 without proper verification and public hearing—left the electoral field wide open to nationalist mobilization.

In a state where identity politics often trump development or the lack thereof, the jury is out whether the Congress or the MNF could effectively use this controversy to transform Mizo’s electoral landscape in their favour.

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