LAST COMFORT ZONE LAST COMFORT ZONE
Lal Thanhawla wants to be chief minister for the fifth time. He is selling happiness on the street.
Mizoram Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla was campaigning in his constituency Serchhip, a tribal township, when he received a call from Congress President Sonia Gandhi. He cancelled all his appointments and drove up to Aizawl, the quaint state capital, 3,715 ft above sea level and nestled between two rivers. It took him three hours to cover the 50-km serpentine road to the capital city.
The next day, on November 10, the four-time Chief Minister waited for an emissary sent by Sonia at his official bungalow. Staring at two photographs of Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi on his mantlepiece, the 71-year-old Congress veteran remembered the past: “In 1985, when I underwent a surgery in Delhi, Rajiv Gandhi came to see me. He asked my son Zauva what his date of birth was. The moment my son replied, Rajiv jumped with joy and took him home. He introduced Zauva to Rahul, who shared the same birthday. That day, the two became inseparable friends.”
Zauva died in 2001, but his friend, Rahul, is visiting Mizoram on November 21. This time not as a family friend but as a leader desperate for results. With BJP set to win the ongoing Assembly polls in four states, this North-east state could be the saving grace for Congress. Lal Thanhawla is confident that he won’t disappoint when the state goes to poll on November 25. “We will win even in those seats where we failed last time,” he says. Congress won 32 of the 40 seats in 2008.
SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
The Chief Minister’s confidence stems from the state’s flagship New Land Use Policy ( NLUP) introduced in 2011 to encourage farmers to move away from jhum cultivation. Farmers were given agricultural training and financial assistance of Rs 1 lakh over a period of one year. The state’s agricultural land is less than 20 per cent of the total land mass while 60 per cent of the 1 million population depends on farming. “It was an instant hit. The government expanded the scheme to eight other departments and today, even a barber gets training and financial assistance,” says Ayangbam Shyamkishore, assistant professor of political science at Mizoram University. The Planning Commission has so far released Rs 838.82 crore exclusively for NLUP.
Lal Thanhawla has gifts for the 60 per cent voters under 35 as well: Three AstroTurf football grounds, three AstroTurf hockey grounds and two floodlit sports grounds. It makes perfect sense in a state where Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are gods. Sachin Tendulkar’s final Test is a non-event here but the Manchester United vs Arsenal Premier League match on November 10 a blockbuster. Entertainment, however, is restricted to football and TV. There are no cinema halls in the state. The only hangout zone is Millennium Centre, a shopping complex that mostly sells products smuggled from Myanmar and China. “My daughter-in-law Rosy is planning to construct a multiplex and a state-of-the-art auditorium on
a plot of land owned by our family,” says the Chief Minister.
Unlike his counterparts in other four poll-bound states, Lal Thanhawla can boast of a government free of scams. “That’s because we are traditionally brought up to live a moral and disciplined life,” says Robert S. Halliday, superintendent of the Synod office, the highest decision-making body of the churches in Mizoram. The influence of the church and civil society groups is another factor that minimises corruption. The PDS system, for instance, is monitored by the Young Mizo Association, the most influential civil society group.
Working women in trousers outnumber paan- chewing men in the streets of Aizawl. They reflect a calm indifference to poll politics. On November 11, residents of Edenthar village under the Aizawl North III constituency, walk into the local community hall around 7 p.m. Within 15 minutes, the hall fills up. The women, mostly over 40 and dressed in colourful Mizo sarongs, take the front rows. Four men, all dressed in suits, walk in soon. They shake hands and then face the gathering. They are contesting in the Assembly polls from that constituency. One of them is the Chief Minister’s brother, Lal Thanzara. A man begins the meeting with a prayer. The four then address the crowd. Once they are done, questions are thrown at them and a debate ensues. Tea is served and by 9.30 p.m. everyone heads home, smiling.
This is one of the platforms organised by Mizoram People’s Forum, a Synod-controlled NGO which functions as an election watchdog. The forum has formulated 27 rules for political parties. No candidate can hold political meetings without the forum’s permission. Instead, it organises joint platforms where candidates from one constituency can engage with voters almost in the fashion of a TV panel discussion. Candidates are also barred
from door-to-door campaigns.
These restrictions have undoubtedly taken away the drama usually associated with Indian elections. There are barely two dozen posters across Aizawl. The men in khaki are conspicuous by their absence on the streets. Between November 9 and 13, INDIA TODAY did not spot a single political meeting within a 25-km radius of the city. Bereft of any political issue, Opposition parties— Mizoram National Front ( MNF), Mizoram People’s Conference ( MPC) and Zoram Nationalist Party ( ZNP)— are struggling to come out with something more enticing to counter the lure of NLUP. A desperate MNF attacked Lal Thanhawla, a devout Christian, for applying tilak during Durga Puja celebrations in Kolkata. He has survived such allegations earlier too. While inaugurating the Tuivawl bridge in Mizoram on January 24 and Mizoram House in New Delhi last year, he broke a coconut and was accused of practising Hinduism.
THE DEVELOPMENT AGENDA
Making amends, MNF chief Zoramthanga, 69, has moved on from religion and included development in his poll vocabulary. “If voted to power, I will make the state self-sufficient in rice, bamboo and rubber production in the next 10 years. NLUP is just a money distributing system for Congress supporters,” he told INDIA TODAY. The former chief minister lost the 2008 polls by 423 votes. “If you count the vote percentage of MNF and MPC in 2008, in their united avatar, they look a very strong force. But the Opposition parties have not been able to really hassle the current government,” says Vanlal Duhsaka, an engineer. He believes Zoramthanga is a more proactive and aggressive leader than Lan Thanhawla. Zoramthanga’s entrepreneur son Andy, who runs a call centre in Aizawl, is frustrated. “The government has done nothing apart from distributing NLUP funds. Where is employment generation? Mizoram does not have a single private entity which employs over 100 people. How long can we live on doles?” he says.
But 21-year-old hotel management student Vanlalhruaii has no patience for Zoramthanga’s 10-year development agenda. She pins her hopes on ZNP chief Lalduhawma. The 64-year-old former IPS officer, who was security in-charge of Indira Gandhi and Aung Sang Syu Kyi, when she was in Delhi, is a favourite chief ministerial candidate of youngsters. In several locally conducted opinion polls, he has scored over Lal Thanhawla and Zoramthanga by big margins. “He talks about our hopes and aspirations. He is unlike other politicians,” says Vanlalhruaii, as she gets ready to serve another guest at Aizawl’s only three-star hotel where she is an intern. Yet political commentators don’t give him more than five seats.
INDIFFERENT TO POLITICS
The inherent social order is perhaps the reason why the youth in Mizoram, even though they are disgruntled, are indifferent to politics. Only two candidates from Rahul Gandhi’s supposedly youthful Congress are under the age of 40. The youth wing presidents of Congress, MNF and MPC were denied tickets even though they emerged as frontrunners prior to nominations. “The MLA, J.H. Rothuama, who is also the revenue minister, is 78 and this is his last chance. So I stepped aside,” says C. Lalawmpuii, 32, president of the Mizoram Youth Congress. The denim-clad feisty woman could have been the fifth woman candidate among the 142 candidates. Since 1972, only three women have been elected to the state Assembly despite women voters outnumbering men in Mizoram. The voters’ list shows that of the 686,305 voters, 349,506 are female and 336,799 male. “It’s not that parties are not willing to give tickets. But women must come out and join politics,” says Lalawmpuii.
Lal Thanhawla understands the power of women, or at least one woman. At 7 a.m. on November 11, he leaves Aizawl for Serchhip, but he has to return by night “to meet Madam’s man again”. That’s a small sacrifice for benefits bestowed upon him by his association with the Gandhis. The Mizos still fondly recall Rajiv as the architect of the Mizo Accord that brought permanent peace to Lushai hills. That’s why the Chief Minister keeps in his drawing room a coffee table book chronicling visits to Mizoram by Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. It has an apt title: Lest we forget.
LALTHANHAWLAAND HIS WIFE LALRILIANI LAL RILIANI
STRICTVIGIL BYTHE CHURCH HAS KEPTTHE POLLS ASUBDUED AFFAIR IN MIZORAM