Congress leader Lal Thanzara, the younger brother of Mizoram chief minister Lal Thanhawla, on Tuesday convincingly won the by-election for a seat he had vacated three months ago.

Facing two conflict of interest cases, Thanzara had resigned in August from the state assembly and the council of ministers. A expose had earlier revealed that Thanzara held shares in a road construction company to which his brother, the chief minister, had given several contracts.

A few days after the Scroll article was published, activists flagged another questionable set of transactions. HP Food Products, a company first owned by Lal Thanzara and then by his son, had supplied high-protein biscuits to the state government between 2010 and 2014.

Thanzara, seen as the political heir to his brother, won 6,175 (or over 56%) of the 10,196 votes polled on November 21 for the Aizawl North-III assembly seat, winning nearly 1,500 more votes than what his two opponents could muster together. The former health minister admitted to winning “more votes than he hoped for”, attributing his victory to “sympathy” from voters.

Dominant despite doubts

The constituency has 17,500 eligible voters. The turnout for last week’s bypoll was 62%, modest compared to the almost consistent turnout of more than 80% usually witnessed in Mizoram elections.

The main opposition Mizo National Front’s candidate K Vanlalvena, who spearheaded the political campaign against Thanzara over the conflict of interest cases, won 2,790 votes (or 25.5%). Lalduhawma, president of the opposition Zoram Nationalist Party, won 1,887, or just over 17% of the votes.

The ZNP had aided MNF’s attack on Lal Thanzara by making public documents showing that a firm owned by the chief minister’s younger brother had supplied “high-protein” biscuits worth more than Rs 22 crore worth to the state’s anganwadis through a contract with the social welfare department between 2008 and 2015. During this period, Thanzara held the position of Parliamentary Secretary and was also a Minister of State with three independent portfolios.

Lal Thanzara and the Congress had denied any wrongdoing in both conflict of interest cases. He denied having received any remuneration for the 21% shares he held “without his knowledge” in Delhi-based road construction firm Sunshine Overseas. He also said that he had been supplying the anganwadi biscuits even when the opposition MNF was in power because he is the “only local manufacturer” of such items.

Party backing

The Congress had maintained throughout that Lal Thanzara would re-contest his vacated seat. No new appointments were made to the three portfolios Thanzara held as MoS, even as he assisted the chief minister, currently serving a fifth term, in nine others.

Shortly after the results were formally announced at 9.45 am on Tuesday, Lal Thanzara emerged from the counting area and shook hands with a dozen or so Congress workers waiting outside.

There were no overt celebrations or shows of strength. Talking to reporters after his victory was confirmed, Lal Thanzara said the voters had the final say.

“I think this result shows that people are not impressed with attacks based on lies,” he said. “My hope and belief is that political parties should learn from this experience. I think it is extremely significant that the people of the constituency have given me more votes than ever and that we won in every booth despite the attacks against me during the campaign.”

He also struck a defiant tone against his detractors. “Today, I want to thank, those who attacked me with great zeal from Australia (a Mizo man living there had written to the election watchdog), the governor and even the Prime Minister's Office for its comments about Lal Thanzara’s reasons for quitting besides issuing a barrage of online statements, the MNF’s youth wing and its legal board," he said. "I want to thank them because they created the environment in which the Congress and I personally could thrive and be elevated.”

Political weight

Lal Thanzara’s re-election and the result of the bypoll point to several factors in Mizoram politics.

At the heart of the campaign were charges of conflict of interest and office-of-profit. These were issues known little in the remote, small and relatively poor state’s rather vibrant, engaged and hotly-debated politics.

As Lal Thanzara also pointed out when he referred to Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s move to quit and re-win Rae Bareli over similar office-of-profit charges almost a decade ago, the bypolls also saw the introduction of a political manoeuvre used more frequently elsewhere.

It was also an election where the opposition relied on attacks against their opponents rather than other issues such as development.

But more than anything, the results show the political weight Lal Thanzara has come to acquire in just seven years since he first ran for elections.

Besides being assured of retaining all the portfolios he gave up in August, Thanzara has increased his vote share. He won 36% of the votes in 2008, almost 46% in 2013, and increased it to more than 56% this time.

Throughout the election campaign, he dodged his opponent’s attacks by focusing on what he considered his good work for the constituency, what he hopes to achieve in future and barring the odd jibe, largely avoided attacking his opponents. He left it to party workers to make last-minute attacks against K Vanlalvena, who had called on the constituency to vote in favour of “righteousness”.

Other stakeholders

For the MNF in particular, this is the third election in which they have pitted a different candidate against Lal Thanzara. The inconsistency may have been a factor, especially since their last candidate lost to Lal Thanzara by a margin of just 5%, much less than the roughly 30% margin this time.

But perhaps in a measure of solace, some Congress supporters also privately say that the result re-enforces the time-tested formula of ruling parties largely winning bypolls in Mizoram.

For the ZNP, it has added to their tally of disappointments: the party went from two seats in the last state assembly to nil in the current one. The 2013 state assembly elections saw them garnering votes insufficient to win them any seats, but enough in many places to upset the MNF’s chances and deprive the Congress of landslide victories in constituencies. This time, their efforts have have come to naught and they have been unable to even eat into both party’s votes, given that the MNF’s and the ZNP’s votes combined could not match the Congress’ tally.

As for the Congress, which now has legislators in 34 of the 40 assembly constituencies,  it will hope to top-up its bypoll victory with further victories in elections to the Lai Autonomous District Council and the Aizawl Municipal Corporation for which polling has been scheduled for Thursday.

That might be a bigger litmus test and a chance to script history for a party which will face an expected anti-incumbency factor as it faces state-wide elections in 2018, for no party has survived in power in Mizoram for more than a decade at a stretch.