As it suffered significant electoral setbacks in the country’s Hindi heartland, the Bharatiya Janata Party was quick to rejoice in the defeat of the Congress in Mizoram on Tuesday. Its objective of a Congress-mukt North East had been achieved, pointed out Himanta Biswa Sarma, Assam’s finance minister and the party’s most prominent face in the region. The Mizo National Front, which toppled the Congress in Mizoram, is a “constituent of the NEDA” or North East Democratic Alliance, a BJP-led coalition of parties from all states in the region, Sarma added.

The North East Democratic Alliance has been a hugely successful vehicle for the BJP. It runs on give and take: while it has helped the saffron party be part of the government in several Christian-majority tribal states as a junior coalition partner, the states, with few sources of revenue, believe they will benefit from a close association with the party in power at the Centre. Also, historical evidence suggests voters in these states tend to gravitate towards the party that is perceived to have easier access to the Central coffers.

But the Mizo National Front owes very little of its thunderous performance in the November 28 elections – it won 26 of the 40 seats in the Assembly – to the BJP, say observers of Mizoram’s politics. Its victory was entirely its own, they point out.

‘No BJP impact’

“The BJP had no impact at all,” affirmed Jangkhongam Doungel, who teaches political science in Mizoram University. “The BJP could make inroads in Meghalaya and Nagaland not because of its manifesto but because of its money power. But unlike Meghalaya and Nagaland, money doesn’t work in Mizoram.”

The Mizo National Front had also played down its membership of the North East Democratic Alliance during the election campaign. “The NEDA is just a forum of anti-Congress parties,” its campaign chairperson, R Tlanghmingthanga, had told in the run-up to elections.

The party’s leader Zoramthanga, who will reportedly take oath as the state’s new chief minister on Saturday, dismissed the possibility of a post-poll alliance with the BJP in interview after interview. Prior to the elections too, the party had kept an arm’s length from the BJP, with Zoramthanga skipping a key meeting of the North East Democratic Alliance in Guwahati in March, which had BJP president Amit Shah in attendance. Analysts say it was a conscious decision. “They wouldn’t have got so many seats otherwise,” said Joy LK Pachuau, the author of Being Mizo.

Jungles to Assembly

The Mizo National Front is not new to electoral success, but it was not always a political party. It started out as a secessionist outfit in the 1960s under the leadership of Laldenga to protest against the Centre’s supposedly apathetical handling of a severe famine that struck Mizoram during that period. Its first foray into electoral politics was soon after the signing of the Mizo Accord in 1986 that brought peace back to the hills and accorded Mizoram statehood.

In 1987, in the first elections after the strife, the Mizo National Front edged out the Congress, but could not complete its full term owing to defections. By the time it finally came back to power once again in 1998, Laldenga had died and Zoramthanga, his former secretary, had taken over. Significantly, the party’s victory in 1998, Pachuau notes in Being Mizo, was driven not by nationalism but a sense of anti-incumbency against the Congress, which had been in power for 10 years.

The Mizo National Front won 26 of the 40 Assembly seats in Mizoram while the Congress managed just five seats. (Credit: PTI)

Vote against Congress?

The party’s win this time could be explained along similar lines, political observers almost unanimously say. Like in 1998, the Congress had been at the helm for 10 years. “There was very high anti-incumbency in Mizoram,” said Lalthlamuana Ralte, who teaches economics at Aizawl’s Pachhunga University. “And the state has only two strong political parties – so it is natural for the MNF [Mizo National Front] to have benefited from it.”

Pachuau agreed. “I don’t think people voted for the MNF because they feel particularly strongly for it,” she said. “It’s basically anti-incumbency sentiment against the Congress.”

To add to it, the Congress “dug its own grave with its infighting and by denying tickets to incumbent MLAs”, said Doungel. “It is the misdeeds of the Congress that MNF reaped the benefits of, as people feel the only alternative to the Congress is the MNF,” he said.

This election also saw a new regional force, the Zoram People’s Movement, emerge. The movement’s rise greatly helped the Mizo National Front, say politicians and analysts alike. “The ZPM took away a large chunk of Congress votes,” said Pachuau.

Eight independents fighting under the banner of the movement won, accounting for more than 22% of the votes. This led to a significant 15% drop in the Congress’ vote share while that of the Mizo National Front increased by a respectable 9%.

Did nationalism pay?

Considering the elections were fought amid heightened communal tensions between Mizos and the non-Mizo population in the state, did the Mizo National Front benefit from its ethnocentric origins? Unlikely, said Pachuau. “There are no clear signs of that,” she said.

However, Doungel was less conservative. “In Mizoram, all parties propagate a Mizo nationalist line,” he insisted, suggesting that the Mizo National Front did not have a monopoly over Mizo nationalism. “All of them, whether it’s the MNF or the Congress, call for the unification of the Zo tribes.”

What then explains the Congress’ dismal performance in the Mizo heartland? All the five seats it managed to win have a sizeable number of non-Mizo voters. Doungel said it was an old pattern. “Urban areas have always been the MNF’s stronghold,” he said. “Even when the Congress wins, the MNF usually manages to hold on to urban seats in Aizawl.”

The rural Mizo population, the Congress’ strength, seems to have deserted the party. Pachuau blamed it on the botched implementation of the government’s farm policies. The Mizo National Front, she pointed out, had gone all out during the election campaign to woo the rural electorate, promising several sops if elected to power.

While the Mizo National Front may not necessarily be seen as the sole flag-bearer of Mizo nationalism, there is little doubt that its worldview is perhaps closer to the church – which enjoys an extremely exalted position in Mizoram – than the Congress. One of its main election planks was total prohibition, and soon after its victory, Zoramthanga said this was among his top priorities. “The church has always been against alcohol,” said Doungel. “Though the church will not tell anyone whom to vote for, people do follow the church’s teachings very seriously in Mizoram.”