LAST COM­FORT ZONE LAST COM­FORT ZONE

Lal Thanhawla wants to be chief min­is­ter for the fifth time. He is sell­ing hap­pi­ness on the street.

India Today - - NATION - By Kaushik Deka

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.

SCAM-FREE STATE

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

YOUNG VOT­ERS, LIKE TH­ESE STU­DENTS FROM GOV­ERN­MEN THRANGBANACOLLEGE IN AIZAWL, MAKE UP 60 PER CENTOF THE ELEC­TORATE

STRICTVIGIL BYTHE CHURCH HAS KEPT­THE POLLS ASUBDUED AF­FAIR IN MI­ZO­RAM

VIKRAM SHARMA/

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