An upholder of “Mizo nationalism” and a leader unafraid to take on a powerful Centre for the Mizo cause – Mizoram chief minister Zoramthanga goes into the state Assembly elections on November 7 banking on his credentials as a leader of his community.

At a recent event to induct new members to his party, the Mizo National Front, 79-year-old Zoramthanga said, “The Centre, the neighbouring states and countries, the world know who we are.”

He was speaking of his government’s steadfast refusal to bend to the Centre’s directives to shut the door on Kuki-Chin refugees fleeing the violence in neighbouring Myanmar since 2021, despite being an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Mizos share a strong ethnic bond with Manipur’s Kuki and Myanmar’s Chin tribes, considered to be an integral part of a larger brotherhood of tribes spread across Myanmar, India and Bangladesh.

Mizoram now hosts over 50,000 displaced people from the larger Kuki-Chin-Zo community. A few weeks ahead of the announcement of the Mizoram Assembly polls, Zoramthanga decided against collecting biometric data of Myanmar refugees in the state – against the explicit directions of the Centre.

“If a state government, not baptised with Mizo nationalism, was in power, they might push back our brothers and sisters back to Myanmar due to pressure from the Centre,” Zoramthanga has warned in a recent address to party workers.

A former militant leader and guerrilla fighter who once fought the Indian state for a sovereign Mizoram, Zoramthanga’s stature as a Zo leader has also been helped by his government’s support for the Kuki-Zos in Manipur. Over 12,000 people from the besieged community in Manipur have found refuge in Mizoram, as the ethnic civil war in the state runs into its sixth month.

Not only has the state stepped up to provide them food and shelter, but Zoramthanga is also a key mediator in the talks between the Centre and Kuki-Zo civil society groups.

The chief minister has also not shied away from upping the ante in his relationship with the Bharatiya Janata Party. A few days ago, Zoramthanga said he would refuse to share a stage with Prime Minister Narendra Modi if he comes to the state. “The people here are all Christians. When they see what Meiteis have done in Manipur by burning churches, to have sympathy with the BJP is a big minus,” he said in an interview with BBC Hindi.

The BJP government in Manipur, headed by N Biren Singh, has been accused of turning a blind eye to the violence by the majority Meitei community in the ethnic conflict.

Mizo nationalism enough?

Several leaders of the Mizo National Front have pitched themselves as the only party that “can lead and guide the Kuki-Zo nation in these troubled times”.

“In the face of global crises in which our very own Zo tribes are in turmoil as we see in Manipur, Myanmar, Bangladesh, this is not the time to vote for parties which come to you and beg ‘Please try us this time’,” state rural development minister Lalruatkima said at an election campaign event in Aizawl on October 17. “This is the time to vote for the strong, time-tested MNF.”

The MNF believes that the solidarity and support given to the displaced from Myanmar and Manipur will yield electoral dividends. “Most of the displaced people from Manipur are happy with how the MNF and the government of Mizoram handled the crisis and helped them,” MNF general secretary T Liansiama told Scroll. “Most of them have relatives, near and dear ones, who can exercise their franchise in the coming election. So the MNF party has a very good chance of winning.”

But not everyone is convinced that Mizo nationalism alone will help the MNF sail through.

“MNF has definitely repositioned itself as the party which stands for Mizo nationalism,” said CV Lalmalsawmi, who teaches at the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

But it could not be said with certainty that the “Mizo/Zo identity discourse will override the anti-incumbency effect,” she argued.

Lalmalsawmi said that the ground for transborder ethnic solidarity has been laid by NGOs and civil society efforts in Mizoram. “The MNF as a political party does not have monopoly over the discourse,” she said.

What the MNF is up against

Though there is support for the government in the larger cause of Zo solidarity, voters may not make their decision on that basis alone.

The MNF is battling anti-incumbency and several allegations of corruption and nepotism apart from the government’s poor record in handling Covid-19, mishandling of state finances, increased debts and inability to disburse salaries and pensions to government employees on time.

Some of these allegations centre around Zoramthanga himself. The state’s anti-corruption Bureau had earlier filed a chargesheet accusing him of accumulation of assets disproportionate to his known sources of income ahead of the 2008 election – he was later acquitted by a special court in November 2021.

More recently, Mizoram First, a body of social workers led by a former Mizoram chief secretary, accused the chief minister of nepotism and corruption, alleging that “contracts were given to his nephew Zoramchhana” and another firm owned by a non-tribal trader through “restricted tenders”.

According to Lalmalsawmi, the Delhi-based teacher, while identity issues are considered important, there is a bigger clamour for better governance.

“Common Mizo citizens care more about their livelihoods and jobs, issues of poor infrastructure, most notably poor roads, excessively high electricity bills and irregular electricity and water supply,” said Lalmalsawmi. “There is a strong sentiment against corruption in general and corruption in higher places in particular,” she said.

Take Vanlalsanga, a 27-year-old from Mizoram’s smallest district, Serchhip, which also has the highest literacy rate in the state. The civil service aspirant backs the MNF government in supporting refugees but is also concerned about the lack of job opportunities in the state.

A few Mizos have also begun pointing out that hosting refugees in such large numbers has unforeseen consequences.

“We support each other in times of crisis,” said Vanlalsanga. “However, particularly in the case of Myanmar, the arrival of refugees has created a significant opening for illicit activities, especially drug smuggling.”

While Mizo nationalism has struck a chord, critics say the MNF government’s performance remains a weak spot. “They [MNF] are banking on our patriotic feelings,” said C Zonunmawia, an Aizawl-based teacher. “But they don’t have much to go to the people and say, ‘We have fulfilled this or that promise’.”