New Delhi: In Mizoram, capital Aizawl and its adjoining areas betray few signs of an upcoming election. Flags belonging to political parties, posters announcing the names and symbols of candidates and election-related graffiti aren’t as abundant as in other parts of India. Neither are big election rallies or gatherings. The atmosphere may seem surprisingly subdued but in Mizoram, these are the hallmarks of a free and fair election according to rules laid out by a well-established civil society and the church.
“Our role is to see that all candidates, irrespective of which party they belong to, get a fair chance," says Vanlalruata, president of the Young Mizo Association (YMA), a key constituent of the Mizo People’s Forum (MPF), an initiative started in 2007 to ensure that elections in Mizoram are free and conducted without the undue taint of money power. The MPF draws support from the powerful socio-religious YMA, both of which are backed by the Presbyterian Church—the main Christian denomination in the state. While the YMA, with 427,393 members, is active throughout the year—supporting people through troubled times—the MPF becomes active only during elections.
“Our people who are volunteers follow each candidate and make sure he or she is not breaking any rules," says Vanlalruata. They ensure that only candidates and party workers are involved in the campaign without assistance from relatives or friends, that there are no rallies or processions but door-to-door calls and that no one hosts feasts or lures voters with promises of government jobs or cash presents.
Expenditure on banners, flags and posters are restricted thanks to the MPF specifying that each candidate should be allowed only a certain number in a neighbourhood —i.e. five banners, 50 flags and 30 posters. And even those have to be made according to certain specifications. “Banners shall not be bigger than 4X8 feet." says a pamphlet brought out by the MPF and signed by the key leaders of all political parties in the state. “Posters shall not be bigger than 3X4 feet," it says, adding party flags mounted on cars and three-wheelers cannot be bigger than 2X3 feet.
Mizoram’s chief electoral officer Ashish Kundra doesn’t deem the role of the church and MDF as intrusive or overstepping their mark. “It is a positive thing that society itself is able to play this role and brings about a balance," he said. “It is a healthy sign that there is a social audit of the behaviour of a candidate."
The political parties too do not seem to have any complaints.
“We are okay with this," said Malsawmkimi, a member of the Zoram People’s Movement, one of the two regional parties in the state, the other being the Mizo National Front. “It sets a level playing field for all parties. Obviously, regional parties like ours do not have the same resources as the national parties (the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party) to spend on elections," she said.
The power of the civil society in Mizoram can be gauged form the fact that the Election Commission had to change its chief electoral officer in the state earlier this month after the MPF and others protested against what they perceived as inappropriate behaviour by the officer —seemingly favouring the minority Bru community and removing a senior Mizo bureaucrat for resisting it.
“That was an unfortunate incident; very, very unfortunate. Usually, we work closely with the Election Commission of India without any friction," said Reverend Lalbiakmawia, who heads the MPF.
Compliance among political parties of the rules put out by the MPF has been satisfactory, Lalbiakmawia said, adding there have been some complaints. “There were two political parties who had hoisted both their flags in one particular community building in a village near here. And there were some reservations expressed by the people living there. We ordered the villagers to remove both flags to ensure there is no ill-will among the people," Lalbiakmawia said.
The use of social media platforms in election campaigning has added a new dimension to the challenges faced by the MPF in ensuring free and fair elections.
“That is why for the first time we have added a clause in the agreement that none can spread fake information through WhatsApp or Facebook," Lalbiakmawia said.