Earlier this year, the results of a local body poll in usually politically staid Mizoram created a stir. The Zoram People’s Movement party, hastily formed before the last Assembly election in 2018, swept aside the ruling Mizo National Front and the Congress to win all 11 seats in the municipal polls in the state’s largest district of Lunglei.

It was a thumping victory by all measures: the party secured nearly half of the votes polled in the election.

Observers of the state say this victory was no fluke. Ahead of an imminent Assembly election, it firmly signalled the arrival of the ZPM as the primary contender to the MNF in the state – an assessment endorsed by Chief Minister Zoramthanga of the MNF.

In a television interview earlier this month, Zoramthanga agreed, “The main opponent will be perhaps the ZPM, not the Congress.”

Among the five states to see Assembly election next month, Mizoram votes on November 7.

Building on a sparkling debut

The ZPM started as a collective. Under its banner, several independent candidates fought the election in 2018. The collective accounted for more than 22% of the total votes in the election and eight of its candidates got elected to Mizoram’s 40-seater Assembly.

Its formidable show on debut came at the expense of the Congress. The Congress’s vote share came down by a striking 15% to 29.9%, resulting in a humiliating defeat after 10 years in power.

Since then, the collective has only grown in stature.

In 2019, it was accorded the status of a state party – and has slowly but unmistakably emerged as the most important Opposition force in the state.

Buoyed by electoral success in the Lunglei civil polls, its leaders insist the party is capable of doing even better in its second outing at the state level.

A plank of ‘change’

Their primary pitch to the voters is change, encapsulated in its slogan this election season: “Vote for change, try ZPM, give this new party a chance, you have tried all others.” As many as 37 of its 40 candidates are fresh faces with no prior electoral experience.

“Mizoram has been under two men for the last 36 years,” said Lalduhoma, the party’s chief ministerial candidate, referring to former chief minister and Congress stalwart Lal Thanhawla, and Zoramthanga – since 1989, Mizoram has been helmed by either of the two. “People want to see new faces, new slogans, new leadership, new policies. They are fed up with the old method of governance.”

A economy in disarray and allegations of corruption

The party’s call for change is powered by its focus on governance issues. Chief among them is corruption – which the ZPM’s leaders say is the reason behind the state’s faltering finances. Mizoram is one of the most financially stressed states in the country with extremely high debt levels. That has often led to delayed disbursal of salaries and retirement benefits to government officials in the last five years.

Lalduhoma said the “root cause” of the economic crisis in the state was corruption. “It’s not difficult to solve this problem once you utilise the budget of the government in a meaningful manner without corruption,” he said.

If voted to power, the ZPM claims it would resolve the crisis. “We are going to fight against corruption, we promise a corruption-free government and we will keep our promise,” said K Sapdanga, the party’s working president.

The ZPM has also accused the MNF-run state government of not doing enough to rein in the alleged smuggling of drugs from Myanmar through Mizoram. As a result, the party claims, the problem of drug abuse in the state has been exacerbated.

“There is no sufficient effort on the part of the government to reduce these activities,” alleged Lalduhoma.

The party's chief ministerial candidate, Lalduhoma. Credit: ZPM/Facebook

A regionalist pitch to compliment

Apart from issues of governance, the ZPM has also sought to position itself as a regional party with its own “decision-making authority”. “Whatever we decide is final,” Lalduhoma said.

Unlike the MNF, which is an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre, his party did not need to “get approval from Delhi”, said Lalduhoma. “They cannot take any political decision because they belong to NDA [National Democratic Alliance],” he said.

To make his point, Lalduhoma pointed out that Mizoram’s lone Lok Sabha representative C Lalrosanga, an MNF member, had voted in favour of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in the Parliament in 2019 despite the party having expressed its opposition to the bill back home.

“They are having two faces,” said Lalduhoma.

With its regionalist pitch, the ZPM hopes to counter the MNF’s projection of itself as a Zo nationalist party, courtesy of its decision to welcome refugees from the community of conflict-ridden Manipur and Myanmar. “Every responsible government has to take care of any refugees coming to take shelter in our territory,” said Lalduhoma. “So a new government also will continue to do the same thing.”

Those who follow politics in the Christian-majority state say that the ZPM’s promise of “overhauling the old way of doing things” may appeal to voters. CV Lalmalsawmi who teaches at Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research in New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, said there was a sense in Mizoram “that we should experiment with a new clean government”.