The aura of a Congress craftsman

Confident Lal Thanhawla began his career as a government employee
Confident Lal Thanhawla began his career as a government employee
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

The chief minister’s bungalow in Mizoram’s capital Aizawl is just a couple of yards away from the house where Pu Lal Thanhawla grew up. Yet the walk to the official residence has been a long and arduous one for the four-time Congress CM.

From a low-level government official, Lal Thanhawla’s rise in the Congress ranks has been nothing short of meteoric. The 72-year-old can boast of having the ears of 10 Janpath, a relationship that dates back to the time of former prime minister Indira Gandhi. As the poster boy of the Congress, he has been the architect of each and every electoral success the party has achieved in this hill state after it attained statehood in 1987.

Lal Thanhawla started his career as a recorder in the office of the Inspector of Schools in the Mizo District Council before going on to join the Assam Co-operative Apex Bank as a dealing assistant in 1963-64. During this time, he also completed his graduation from Aizawl College.

Mizoram — then a district council under Assam — was undergoing an unrest and the Mizo National Front (MNF) led by Laldenga was fighting for separate statehood. The MNF was looking for educated young people and persistently wooed Lal Thanhawla to join them. Although apprehensive of joining a seccessionist movement, he became a member of the MNF and was soon made its ‘foreign secretary’. In 1967, the government arrested him on charges of sedition and he was sent to the Nagaon Jail in Assam, where he remained until his release in 1969.

Out of prison, Lal Thanhawla jumped headlong into politics, albeit this time under a different banner as president of the Youth Congress. He had his first tryst with electoral politics in 1972 after Mizoram was carved out of Assam as a union territory.

He lost the first Assembly polls he contested from the Aizawl North seat to R Thangliana of the Mizo Union. In the next election in 1978, he won from Champhai, defeating Sakhawliana of the People’s Conference Party led by Brigadier T Sailo, another stalwart of Mizo politics.

In 1984, the Congress swept the polls and Lal Thanhawla became the chief minister for the first time. On 30 June 1986, India signed the historic Mizo Peace Accord with the MNF. As part of the agreement, Lal Thanhawla resigned from his post, paving the way for an interim government of the MNF under Laldenga. This gesture, as it turned out, proved to be a political masterstroke, one that also showcased the maturing of a politician.

“Even today, people remember Lal Thanhawla’s gesture of stepping down since this paved the way for ushering peace in Mizoram,” says Lal Thanhawla’s biographer David M Thangliana. “Earlier he had skillfully merged the Mizo Union, which was much stronger then, with the Congress in 1974. It is to his credit that the Mizo Union ceased to exist.”

The signs of political astuteness became pronounced in 1988, when, as the Leader of the Opposition, he led a successful coup to topple the MNF government. This was largely possible due to the defection of nine of the 24 MNF MLAs to the Congress. Lalthawla could not, however, form the government, as President’s Rule was imposed in the state in September 1988.

In 1989, when the state went to polls, the Congress won with handsome returns and Lal Thanhawla became chief minister for the second time.

He began his third innings as CM in 1993 by forging an alliance with the Mizoram Janata Dal.

After 10 years in power, Lal Thanhawla tasted defeat in 1998, when he lost the Serchhip seat to retired pwd engineer K Thangzualla. Anti-incumbency and an alliance forged by the two Opposition parties, the MNF and the Mizoram People’s Conference (MPC), forced the Congress out of power. So complete was the humiliation that it could only manage seven of the 40 Assembly seats. Problems were further compounded in 2005 when veteran Congress leader and former finance minister J Lalsangzuala split from the party and floated the Mizoram Congress Party.

It was Lal Thanhawla again who came to the party’s rescue, this time using all his skills of negotiation to bring back the rebels into the party fold just before the 2008 Assembly polls. After 10 years in relative obscurity, he scripted a Congress comeback in Mizoram with a landslide victory in the election, winning 32 of the 40 seats. Lal Thanhawla himself won two seats — Serchhip and South Tuipui — and became chief minister for the fourth time.

In Mizoram, people see their chief minister as a towering personality, while his modesty and calm earning him the trust of the Congress’ first family in Delhi. The relationship has only deepened in the past four decades.

However, come December, and this could well be his acid test. In 2008, the Congress came to power, riding largely on the back of the New Land Use Policy (NLUP) initiated by Lal Thanhawla in 1993. The flagship programme is aimed at doing away with shifting cultivation by providing alternative land-based permanent occupation to farmers.

In 2008, he revived the NLUP with a promise of 1 lakh for each farmer family and made it his successful poll plank. The Congress is banking on the NLUP to get a successful mandate once more in the coming election. “The poor people are happy with the nlup and are likely to give a mandate to the Congress for another five years,” says senior Congress leader C Chawngkunga.

But, this could be too sanguine an assessment. The MNF has gone to town with the financial mismanagement, corruption, administrative failure, price rise and bad roads during Lal Thanhawla’s first five years. It has also accused the Congress of promising the NLUP under the “Prime Minister’s special package”, but using state funds to implement the policy, resulting in a fund shortage for other development projects.

Moreover, given the church’s displeasure at the CM wearing a tilak at a recent function in Mumbai, say political observers, many in the conservative Christian state may not vote for him.

(Zodin Sanga is an independent journalist based in Aizawl)

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