MNF ahead in Mizoram

Print edition : November 21, 2003

Chief Minister Zoramthanga. - RITU RAJ KONWAR

The emergence of Chief Minister Zoramthanga as the new peace-maker in the insurgency-hit northeastern region has added to the electoral strength of the Mizo National Front in Mizoram.

THE stage is set for triangular contests in the 40 Assembly constituencies that go to the polls on November 20 in Mizoram, the most peaceful State in the northeastern region. It seems that the ruling Mizo National Front (MNF) is way ahead of its rivals - the Congress(I), and the Mizoram People's Conference (MPC)-Zoram Nationalist Party (ZNP) combine. Some small regional parties are bent on raising ethnic issues and are being countered by both the Congress(I) and the ruling MNF. The MNF, which in alliance with the MPC came to power in 1998 by bringing an end to the Congress(I)'s decade-long rule, has completed its full five-year term even after its dissociation with the MPC. Both the MNF and the Congress(I) are contesting all the 40 seats alone. The MPC's new-found ally for the coming elections is the ZNP led by former Lok Sabha member Lalduhawma.

In the last elections held in 1998, the MNF-MPC alliance won 33 seats, the Congress(I) six and independents one. The MNF government led by Chief Minister Zoramthanga may face the anti-incumbency factor, but considering the serious dissensions within the Congress(I), the former, which is more cohesive and organised, is expected to perform better.

The Congress(I) in Mizoram is a divided house. A senior party legislator admitted that factionalism had eroded the party's strength. A vast majority of its supporters were against former Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla leading the party in the elections. The party is yet to chalk out officially any strategy for the polls. Besides, Lal Thanhawla faces corruption charges and is being investigated by federal intelligence agencies for alleged misappropriation of government funds during his tenure as Chief Minister until 1998. The list of Congress(I) candidates proposed by the party nomination committee was handed over to Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi for approval by Lal Thanhawla on October 24. Lal Thanhawla said the list was drawn up after "thorough screening".

According to a pre-poll agreement reached between the MPC and the ZNP, 18 of the 40 seats will be contested by candidates agreed upon by both the parties. The remaining 22 will be left for `friendly contests'. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has virtually no political base in Mizoram, has for the first time decided to enter the fray. State BJP president V.F. Lalzarliana said his party would field 16 candidates.

This round of elections is the fifth since Mizoram attained statehood following the June 1986 peace accord signed between the Rajiv Gandhi government and MNF chief Laldenga. The first elections, held in February 1987, brought the MNF to power with a big majority. But the government did not last its full term owing to dissidence in the MNF, and mid-term elections were held in January 1989. The Congress(I) won 23 seats and its ally, the MNF (Democratic), which subsequently merged with the Congress(I), won two. The Congress(I) formed the government, which lasted its full term. In the 1993 elections, the Congress(I) won only 16 seats but formed the government with the support of eight MLAs of its ally, the Mizo Janata Dal (MJD). Later, the MJD parted ways with the Congress(I) and formed the MPC under the leadership of Brigadier (retd.) T. Sailo. The split was the result of the Congress(I)'s failure to adhere to a pre-election agreement that Lal Thanhawla would be Chief Minister for the first half of the term and Sailo for the remaining period. Lal Thanhawla stayed on in power with the help of five MNF MLAs who defected to the Congress(I).

Besides a fractured Congress(I), what has given the ruling MNF a distinct edge is the emergence of Chief Minister Zoramthanga as the new peace-maker in the insurgency-hit northeastern region. Zoramthanga has been successfully mediating the peace talks with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isaac-Muivah) outside India. He is also facilitating similar negotiations with five other separatist groups in the region after being formally entrusted with the responsibility by the Central government. Zoramthanga, 53, was a former separatist guerrilla leader and was the second-in-command of the MNF that surrendered in 1986 after waging a 20-year war against the Indian government.

The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which has some influence in the State, has decided not to contest the elections. Instead, it will support the MNF. NCP general secretary and former Lok Sabha Speaker Purno A. Sangma said: "Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga and his MNF must retain power in the State for the sake of the peace process in the northeastern region."

Releasing his party's manifesto, Zoramthanga announced that "good governance, stability and peace" would be the main poll issues. The MNF is highlighting the facts that its government brought about economic reforms in the State and took steps to bring down corruption.

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