A slide that began in Assam in the spring of 2016 has culminated in Mizoram in the winter of 2018: the Congress party has been wiped out of the North East. The final nail in the grand old party’s coffin in the region was hammered in on Tuesday by the Mizo National Front, a party that began as a secessionist outfit. As results were announced for the 40-member state assembly elections, the MNF party emerged victorious in 26 seats.

The decisive mandate means that the Bharatiya Janata Party, which finally opened its account in the state on its sixth attempt, is unlikely to play much of a role in government formation. Although the Mizo National Front is part of BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, it has kept an arm’s length from the saffron party through its election campaign. With the numbers on its side, that is unlikely to change.

“The BJP will certainly not be part of the government,” affirmed the Mizo National Front’s campaign chairperson in a telephone interview from Aizawl. “We will form the government on our own.”

The BJP is part of the government in the other six states in the North East.

The Congress’s decimation – its tally has been reduced to five from 34 in 2013 and vote share by almost 15% – will not be a surprise to those acquainted with the state’s politics. Apart from the stiff anti-incumbency sentiment that came with having been in power for 10 years, the party was also battling several charges of corruption and nepotism. The chief minister, Lal Thanhawla, was directly implicated in many of them. He ended up losing both the seats he contested from.

Rural discontent

Agrarian distress also seems to have taken its toll. The Congress government’s flagship New Land Use Policy that was supposed to transform rural livelihoods in the state by weaning away farmers from jhum slash-and-burn cultivation ended up being little more than a patronage scheme during the party’s second term, according to local reports.

The Mizo National Front, during its election campaign, addressed these concerns headlong. If elected to power, the party said it would implement its own socio-economic development programme for the welfare of farmers. Congress leaders acknowledge that the proposed plan may have swayed votes in large numbers in favour of the Mizo party. The party’s spokesperson Lallianchhunga admitted, “The MNF has promised aid to farmers under its socio-economic development policy so that has had an impact in rural areas.”

Identity issues

Besides, the elections this year were fought amid heightened communal tensions – the run-up to the polls saw old cleavages between the Mizos and the minority tribes of Chakma and Bru open up yet again. It is likely that the Mizo National Front, with its ethnocentric origins, gained from it. The party definitely made the right noises: it promised to ban alcohol in the state in keeping with Christian values, which form an integral part of Mizo identity.

Although the church and the Mizoram’s powerful civil society groups shy away from backing any particular party, the promise to re-impose prohibition would have undoubtedly earned the Mizo National Front their support. “Directly we cannot support any party, but we are all for prohibition,” the Young Mizo Association’s general secretary Lalhmachhuana had said in an interview to Scroll.in the first week of November. The Congress’s move to lift total prohibition in the state in 2014 had not gone down well with the pressure groups and the church. Lallianchhunga conceded that “prohibition may have been an issue”.

The rise of the ZPM

But apart from the Mizo National Front and the Congress, the Mizoram story this time has a prominent third character – and it is not the BJP. The Zoram Peoples’ Movement, a collective under whose banner several independent candidates fought the elections, came out on top in as many as eight seats besides accounting for more than 22% of the total votes.

The Congress seems to suffered the brunt of the surge of the Zoram Peoples’ Movement. “The main reason for our defeat is the ZPM factor,” clamed Lallianchhunga. “They have eaten into our vote bank. People who voted for Congress in 2013 have voted from them this time. Only our core vote bank voted for us this time.”

The numbers bear it out: While the Mizo National Front’s vote share has increased by around 9%, the Congress’s has dipped by nearly 15%.

Almost symbolically, its president and founder Lalduhoma humbled Lal Thanhawla in Serchhip, a constituency the latter has won nine times. K Sapdanga, a leader of the collective, called its performance “satisfactory”.

“We will try and be a good opposition now,” he said.