Away from the limelight of New Delhi, Lal Thanhawla has doggedly carried the Congress flag in the Northeastern hill state of Mizoram. In the process, the 72-year-old four-time chief minister has earned the reputation of being a formidable political force, who can carry a party on his shoulders. On 8 December, Lal Thanhawla gave the party another victory, its second straight one in the 40-member Assembly. It was a hands-down win for the Congress with 34 seats. Arch rivals, the Mizo National Front (MNF), could only manage five, while the remaining one went to the Mizoram People’s Conference (MPC).
Lal Thanhawla himself won both the seats he contested from. On the other hand, MNF supremo and former chief minister, Zoramthanga, considered a key challenger, lost his seat. This was a complete contradiction to the trend in the four other states that had gone to polls, where the Congress was handed a thorough drubbing in each. To understand what makes the Congress tick in this little-discussed Northeastern hill state, it is necessary to turn back the clock by a few years.
In 1986, the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi signed the historic Mizo Peace Accord with the MNF, a militant outfit-turned-political party. Under Laldenga, the hero of Mizo nationalism, the MNF ruled Mizoram in 1987, and again for 10 years in 1998- 2003, when it was led by Zoramthanga. Lal Thanhawla, who had become chief minister for the first time in 1984, had graciously stepped aside to let Laldenga form the government, as part of the Mizo Accord.
In 1988, as the Leader of the Opposition, he led a successful coup to topple the MNF government. Lal Thanhawla’s second and third stints were in 1989 and 1993, when he led the Congress to wins in successive polls. Again in 2003, he scripted a fourth Congress victory in the state.
“I felt that the people of Mizoram want us to retain power,” said the four-time CM, on the verge of a fifth term. “They want us to continue the good work and that’s why we swept the polls.”
A lot of the “good work” Lal Thanhawla was talking about was the New Land Use Policy (NLUP) he had initiated in 1993. The flagship programme, aimed at doing away with shifting cultivation by providing land-based permanent occupation to farmers, came with a promise of Rs 1 lakh for each farmer family. In 2008, the NLUP had proven to be the ace up the Congress’ sleeve. Five years later, the card has paid off again. The government has been able to bring 1.35 lakh families from rural areas under the programme and the dividend is showing in the form of votes.
The MNF, though, has a different take on the situation. “We are not sure if the NLUP project has helped the people or not, but many people in rural areas have got money,” said MNF vice-president R Lalthangliana after the poll results. “Money was misused, but it was a good card for the Congress.”
For the MNF, the polls have shown that Mizo nationalism is no longer the force it used to be in the Christian-dominated state. The party’s attempts to invoke religious sentiments by accusing Lal Thanhawla of anti-Christian practices like wearing a tilak did not cut much ice with the voters, and it was forced to challenge the Congress on real issues.
The announcement of a Socio-Economic Development Programme (SEDP) to counter Lal Thanhawla’s NLUP perhaps came a little too late and failed to sway the voters.
The decision to form a pre-poll alliance with the Mizoram Peoples’ Conference (MPC) and the Maraland Democratic Front (MDF) to form the Mizoram Democratic Alliance (MDA) also backfired. Despite drawing a blank in the election, the Zoram Nationalist Party played the biggest spoiler by cutting opposition votes and making it easier for the Congress.
Curiously, the Mizoram results are symptomatic of a larger picture of the Northeast. Barring Tripura and Nagaland, other states of the region have been safe bets for the Congress. In Assam, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has given the party three straight victories. The Congress has always ruled the roost in Arunachal Pradesh and is sitting comfortably in Meghalaya under the stewardship of Mukul Sangma. Even in strife-torn Manipur, the people have trusted the Okram Ibobi Singh government with their mandate for three successive terms. In fact, with every successive election in these states, the Congress has actually improved its tally and regional outfits have been sidelined.
According to political observers, the key to the Congress’ success in Northeast India is the fact that a lion’s share of the land in the region is protected for indigenous people under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, and the many calculations this throws up. Different ethnic groups in various states have their own autonomous councils to administer themselves. The Congress has encouraged such councils, but it has its own risks. As the 2012 Bodoland riots between Bodos and Bengali-Muslims showed, this self-serving ethnicity creates possibilities for the division of communities.
Moreover, there are larger issues facing the Congress in the time to come. For one, there is the presence of several lobbies in the state units. The key leaders too are getting old with no sign of worthy replacements yet. Moreover, if there is a change of guard at the Centre in 2014, many Congress governments in the region will face a crunch in funds to run their own flagship populist schemes.
Mizoram itself is a classic case. Lal Thanhawla cannot hang his boots anytime soon, there is no one to replace him in the party. For his NLUP programme, the UPA had allocated Rs 2,800 crore. With the wind blowing the way it is now, if the NDA were to come to power in 2014, it is anybody’s guess where that money would come from.