Representational image. | Image Credit: The Indian Wire
The debacle concerning the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) controversy in Mizoram is not quite settled. The Election Commission of India (ECI) has acceded to the demands of Mizo civil society and withdrawn the former CEO S B Shashank, following his spat with the former Principal Secretary (Home) Lalnunmawia Chuaungo. The process for appointing a new CEO is also underway. However, it has given the parties in the fray ammunition for the polls.
The issue surrounding the controversy is inextricably linked to the Bru repatriation issue. The Bru’s are a non-Mizo minority community living in Mizoram. They had been lobbying for an Autonomous District Council (ADC) along the lines of the Chakma ADC which still exists in Mizoram. However, the Mizo majority government did not act on the demand. The movement took a violent turn and an armed campaign was launched by a section of the Bru population. In 1997, the Bru National Liberation Front killed a Mizo forest guard. This sparked ethnic riots which prompted a sizeable number of Brus to flee to Tripura. Since then, the Bru refugees have been living in transit camps in Tripura despite several failed attempts to repatriate them.
Also Read | Mizoram CEO Likely to Go, Brus to Vote in Mizoram Exclusively
Mizo Ethnic Issue?
According to a source in Mizoram, portraying the issue as influenced by religion is not correct as the top leadership in the displaced Bru organisations are all Christian, like the majority of the people of Mizoram. The conflict is entirely an ethnic issue.
How this relates to Chuaungo is that the former CEO accused him of attempting to deny Bru people from being enrolled in the voter lists. Earlier this year, voter enrolment forms were stolen from the Deputy Commissioner’s office in Mamit district and destroyed. Members of two ethnic Mizo nationalist youth groups have been charge-sheeted in connection with this. The reason for updating the voter rolls and including Bru voters was that in 2014, the ECI and the government of Mizoram had agreed that Bru voters would not be allowed to vote from the transit camps in Tripura in all future polls.
Shashank was obviously irked by Chuaungo and wrote to the ECI to have him relieved of his duties. Following Chuaungo’s removal, Mizo civil society erupted in protest. Perhaps sensing an opportunity, Mizoram Chief Minister, Lal Thanhawla, wrote to the Prime Minister and the Union Minister of Home Affairs regarding the issue. Following the protests and the letter, the CEO of Jharkhand, an ethnic Mizo, rushed to Mizoram to hold parleys with the protesters. In the meantime, the ECI summoned S B Shashank to Delhi. In this backdrop, there may be a few interesting outcomes.
Also Read | Bru Issue Behind the CEO Controversy in Mizoram?
As far as the Lal Thanhawla-led Congress is concerned, they had faced two set backs when R Lalzirliana who has been their most trusted electoral deal maker in the state resigned from the party and joined the Mizo National Front (MNF). The other was when the Speaker, Hiphei, resigned and joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). These defections may have been predicated by the growing anti-incumbency in the state, particularly as the Congress has held power for two consecutive terms. After the Chief Minister’s letter which gained wide publicity, the anti-incumbency factor may have been numbed with a dose of Mizo nationalism.
The MNF saw its prospects improve after Lalzirliana’s defection. However, its past record of being a part of Vajpayee’s National Democratic Front government has given the Congress the ammunition to paint the party as being pro-BJP. The MNF on the other hand has ruled out any alliance with the BJP in the present polls on the ground that the BJP and the Congress had formed an alliance to rule the Chakma ADC. Interestingly, the Congress has been routinely accusing all the Mizoram based parties of having alliances with the BJP.
Also Read | Mizoram Assembly Elections 2018: A Political Backgrounder
How BJP is trying to Gain More Ground
The anti-Christian tag is one that the BJP has been unable to shake-off. Though this did not pose much of a problem in Nagaland, the issue there was less about religious beliefs, and more about a political solution to the 70-year Indo-Naga conflict. In the Meghalaya polls, the BJP won only two seats in the 60 member house, whereas the Congress emerged as the single largest party. The National People’s Party (NPP)-led government of Meghalaya has included the BJP into its political alliances in the Northeast. However, Meghalaya is the only state where they are the senior partner. However, in Mizoram the NPP’s alliances with the BJP in other states may become a thorn in its side for its debut in the state.
The BJP, on the other hand, is predictably perceived to be busy wooing the minority votes in the state, i.e. the Bru and Chakma votes. Both the Bru and Chakma have a sizeable proportion of their population that is not Christian. In Mamit district, which borders Tripura and has a sizeable Bru population, the Mizo groups have agreed that they would vote for a ‘consensus’ candidate, following rumours that the BJP was planning to field a Bru candidate.
Another place where the BJP has been playing its politics is in the transit camps in Tripura where it is a known fact that the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and affiliated Hindutva organisations have been active. After the rations to the Bru refugees were stopped following the expiry of the repatriation window, the rations were resumed after twenty-one days. The resumption of rations was also accompanied by visits from the Tripura law minister Ratan Lal Nath, Assembly Deputy Speaker Biswabandhu Sen and MLA Ashish Saha. The presence of the BJP lawmakers has been noted in Mizoram.
If at the beginning of campaigning it appeared that as per electoral tradition, the MNF would win the polls to serve two terms, at present there is no way of knowing who will come out victorious.