The upcoming Mizoram elections are mired in controversies that are unprecedented for the geographically isolated northeastern state. After massive protests against the Chief Electoral Officer, B Shashank, for his alleged overreach in the deployment of 40,000 central forces and allowing Reang (Bru tribe) people living in Tripura to vote in the camps where they live instead of travelling to Mizoram to vote.
These moves were seen by a cross-section of community-based organisations and political parties like the Congress, Mizo National Front and the upstart National People’s Party as dangerous to the stability of Mizoram, a tiny state with just over 11 lakh population.
With 7.68 lakh voters, nearly 70 per cent of the state’s population is registered in electoral rolls making it the only state with such a high percentage of voters. And reflecting the still strong matriarchal tradition in the state, women voters outnumber men with 3. 93 lakh women voters as opposed to 374,496 men.
The 40-seat Mizoram assembly is presently dominated by the Congress with 34 MLAs. Its five-term chief minister, Lal Thanhawla has been exuding confidence and has assured his supporters that the party will retain the 34 seats in the November 28 Assembly elections. Mizoram is the only Congress-ruled state in the Northeast.
And, if Thanhawla manages to retain power then he would successfully defeat BJP’s goal of making northeast free from Congress. After Meghalaya, Nagaland, Arunachala, Manipur, and Tripura, the BJP is gunning for Mizoram, and it is this saffron onslaught that has made this election the most unpredictable.
The Controversy over Brus’ voting
Over 32,000 Brus live in different relief camps in neighbouring Tripura. Following ethnic clashes two decades ago, these Bru refugees who are also known as Reangs, had to flee Mizoram. However, nearly 40,000 Brus continue to live in Mizoram. In the past, those Brus who fled, and, who now live in unhygienic conditions in relief camps in Tripura were allowed to cast their votes through postal ballots and in booths set up especially for them inside Mizoram.
What Chief Electoral Officer wanted was to have nearly 12,000 Bru voters cast their votes within the camps in Tripura itself. This led to a serious concern among Mizo groups who fear that the polling of votes in these camps could lead to malpractices like the use of money and muscle power.
The mistrust of Mizo groups also stems from the BJP’s changed policy towards refugee groups like the Brus. Besides this issue, the Mizo groups also fear that massive deployment of central forces may lead to intimidation of locals who still remember the bloody decades of insurgency in Mizoram in the 1960s and 1970s.
For the 40-seat Mizoram assembly, a total of 211 candidates have filed nominations. Besides the ruling Congress, and the opposition Mizo National Front (MNF), BJP too has fielded contestants in all 40 constituencies. The Zoram People’s Movement (ZPM) is fighting on 35 seats, and another smaller ethnic-based party, the Zoram Thar has put up 24 candidates.
The National People’s Party (NPP), widely expected to put up a good fight, has decided to contest nine seats while the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) is contesting in five seats.
With just two weeks to go before polls, the largely rural state is gearing up for a high-stakes battle in which the states are highest for incumbent chief minister Lal Thanhawla of the Congress. Given the unpredictability this time it is difficult to predict if Mizoram will stay with the Congress or like other states in the northeast, it too will become ‘Congress-free’.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)