Aizawl: The Congress’ defeat in the Mizoram assembly elections in November 2018 saw the party losing its last bastion in the Northeast. In the two years before that, the Congress had faced defeat in Assam, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur and Tripura too.
The drubbing in Mizoram, at the hands of the Mizo National Front (MNF), also proved to be a precursor of sorts to the party’s subsequent loss in the three tribal autonomous councils of the state — the Lai Autonomous Development Council (LADC), Mara Autonomous Development Council (MADC) and Chakma Autonomous Development Council (CADC). These councils exist under the sixth schedule of the Constitution, which grants special safeguards to tribal areas.
Prior to this defeat, the Congress was the sole centre of power in Mizoram’s politics for half a decade, occupying a stunning 85 per cent of the assembly seats and holding the reins in all three autonomous district councils.
In less than a year following the assembly polls, however, the Congress has lost its grip over the CADC, all its 20 members in the MADC have merged with the BJP, and is now in danger of losing the LADC too.
All in all, this is a story of how the Congress is losing ground even within what was its last stronghold in the Northeast.
Slew of defections
Signs of a thaw in Congress’ power had begun as early as April 2018 when, after intermittent infighting among local leaders, it became the smallest party in the 20-seat CADC, winning just five seats. The BJP, which became a go-to party for Congress’ disgruntled leaders, had won six seats while the MNF eight.
The hung council threw up a political oddity and almost immediately Congress veteran Lal Thanhawla’s three trusted lieutenants stitched up a historic coalition between their party and the fledgling BJP.
The unexpected union had left even the BJP leaders speechless. Talking to this reporter then, its state president J.V. Hluna’s first reaction — when the news about the coalition broke on 25 April — was, “We are simply waiting. We saw the post [on social media].”
But the strange bedfellows were to part ways in less than a year as state politics began tumbling on the eve of the assembly elections. A month before the polls, Congress’ state vice-president and then home minister of Mizoram R. Lalzirliana had quit and defected to the MNF, closely followed by former cabinet minister Lalrinliana Sailo.
In the same turmoil, former minister B.D. Chakma and then Speaker Hiphei also defected to the BJP, while former parliamentary secretary Hmingdailova Khiangte went to the National People’s Party (NPP).
These defections, along with massive anti-incumbency and the sudden rise of a third front in the form of the Zoram Peoples Movement (ZPM), saw the Congress’ strength in the Mizoram legislative assembly reduce drastically to 12.5 per cent from 85 per cent. The MNF which had won 26 seats initially bagged another one in the ensuing by-polls.
Losing its last bastion
The defections and Congress’ eventual weakening of strength only led to a domino effect in the months to come — by January this year, its ally in the CADC, the BJP, was unseated from the post of chief executive member (CEM) by a no-confidence vote initiated by MNF leader Rasik Mohan Chakma. Chakma promptly (and successfully) claimed it despite not having a majority.
Less than six months later, on 25 June, the Congress lost all its 20 members in the MADC to the BJP. It happened five days after the MNF government appointed a one-man inquiry commission to investigate into the allegations of corruption in the council. This development also meant that the BJP secured its first full administration in Mizoram.
Around the same time, the Congress’ last bastion in the state — the LADC — also began to show signs of despair. Of the 16 Congress members in the 25-seat council (excluding three nominated seats), four, along with an Independent who had until then supported the Congress, moved to form a joint legislature party with the MNF’s eight members on 27 June. They effectively beat the Congress to secure a majority by one (and the Congress defectors were no small fry either, including both the chairman and vice-chairman of the council).
But the nature of these defections soon got dragged in legalities — the legislators could be deemed to have broken (or not) the anti-defection law. The case at present is before the principal bench of the Gauhati High Court. Its hearing is slated to begin only in November.
Amid all these rebellions and defections eroding the Congress’ grip on power in all the four elected government structures in Mizoram (state and the three regional councils) were two tests of its electoral prowess.
Elections to Mizoram’s lone Lok Sabha seat again saw the Congress and its electoral partner ZPM trailing behind the MNF’s candidate by roughly 10,000 votes.
The last day of August saw voting in the by-elections to fill up vacant seats in three local council (elected neighbourhood-level bodies) within the Aizawl municipal area. The Congress had contested in all and won none.
Offering specific analysis for the defections in each of the three councils, state Congress Treasurer Zodintluanga told ThePrint that the MADC defections were driven by the state government’s “threat to dissolve” the local government (referring to the setting up of the inquiry commission by MNF).
A former cabinet minister, Zodintluanga said the 20 Congress leaders had joined the BJP in the hope that they would be “protected”.
He also attributed the defections in the LADC to longstanding squabbles among party leaders. One of the defectors — V.L. Hmuaka — was the council’s CEM when he faced a rebellion by some of his own party members in early 2017. The matter was settled only after the current and embattled CEM T. Zakunga took over the post.
Zodintluanga also blamed a similar leadership tussle for the party’s demise in the Chakma council, and said four former Congress leaders “who often campaigned against each other even during polls” have left the party.
“We will be better than before in the CADC,” he added.