Politics

A Church-Backed Initiative Sets an Example in Mizoram Elections

Mizo People’s Forum works closely with the Election Commission to conduct a free and fair election in the state.

Aizawl: Two neighbouring states in the northeast. Two very different elections.

In February 2018, riding from Agartala airport to the city was almost like an incitement to be a part of the high-pitched assembly election that Tripura was facing a few days later. Mini flags of political parties – mainly the incumbent CPI(M) and the challenger BJP – were planted all along the route, and vehicles plastered with party posters and loudspeakers tore through the streets. In a closely-contested battle, violence was one of the marked features. The body of a political worker hanging from a tree was found just behind our hotel in the state capital.

Eight months later, the ride from Aizwal airport to the city – just days before the assembly elections – reveals an altogether different scenario. You have to search hard to spot flags and posters of candidates belonging to the two top contenders for the November 28 assembly elections – the Congress and the Mizo National Front (MNF). No blaring loudspeakers, no raucous party workers, no violence – the only sounds were of a community hymn recital in a house behind the hotel.

But that is Mizoram for you. It may be subdued if we go by the standard set by the rest of India, but in Aizawl, it reflects a free and fair election.

Like elsewhere, the onus of conducting fair elections in Mizoram too rests on the Election Commission of India (ECI). But evidently, it is also on a community initiative backed by the Church. Launched in 2006, the initiative is armed with a mechanism to name and shame any wrongdoing by a candidate on community loudspeakers for one and all to know and denounce. Significantly, the entire exercise is hinged on the responsibility of each member of the deeply religious Mizo society to protect its moral fabric.

The society’s overwhelming consent to such vigilantism by community organisations in regard to the polls was seen in early November when it didn’t let even the ECI state chief slip past. S.B. Shashank was accused by a set of powerful Mizo civil society groups of using ‘unfair means’ to conduct elections – by seemingly favouring the minority Bru community allegedly at the behest of a political party, and removing a Mizo senior bureaucrat resisting it – thus congregating a formidable crowd of about 50,000 protesters in Aizawl, demanding his replacement. The ECI finally relented.

Also read: Changes in Mizoram Election Commission Continue as Officer Removed from Post

“That incident was unfortunate. But usually, we work closely with the ECI to conduct a fair election. Besides ensuring that the candidates follow the ECI’s model code of conduct, we have set our own rules for the elections and revise them every year,” said Reverend Lalbiakmawia.

Mizo People’s Forum

The Reverend heads Mizo People’s Forum (MPF), the initiative started in 2006 which has since been making arrangements to keep every election in the state free and fair and “without money power”. Like the powerful socio-religious body Young Mizo Association (YMA), MPF is also backed by the state’s Presbyterian Church. But unlike the YMA, which has nearly four and a half lakh members across the state and can be called not only the oldest but the single most influential socio-religious body of the Mizo society that has a say in almost every aspect of community living, the MPF becomes active only during an election.

Comprising church members and advisers handpicked from the civil society, the election watchdog borrows volunteers from the YMA besides two other civil society organisations – Mizo Hmeichhe Insuihkhawm Pawl (MHIP) and Zoram Upa Pawl (ZUP) –  as per its requirement to monitor the polling process and help people cast their votes at the booths in a smooth manner.

The MPF headquarters is located within the central office of the YMA, in the Tuikhuahtlang Veng (colony) of Aizawl. A maze of rickety stairways, the quiet, dilapidated structure of the YMA central office doesn’t give the impression of either being a significant milepost of the Mizo society since 1935 or the fact that an office operating from its premises has a strong moral binding on the major political parties participating in an assembly poll. Reverend Lalbiakmawai sits in one corner of a dimly-lit room in the basement of the YMA headquarters, which serves as the MPF central office.

“Both YMA and MPF are part of the church but work independently,” said the reverend.

From a steel almirah beside his desk, he pulled out two leaflets, one in Mizo language and the other in English. Handing out the English one, he said, “This is our partnership agreement with all the political parties participating in the coming assembly elections. It has the signature of the president of the Congress, the BJP, Mizo National Front, Zoram People’s Movement, PRISM (People’s Representation for Identity and Status of Mizoram), Zoram Nationalist Party and Mizoram People’s Conference.”

In the run-up to every election, MPF enters into such a ‘partnership agreement’ with all major political players and decides a set of dos and don’ts. Complete with signatures of the president of each party, the agreement is thereafter printed in Mizo and English languages and distributed among the public. “This is to inform the public about the dos and don’ts during the campaigning by the candidates so that they also get to know the rules set for the elections by MPF. Any violation is being closely monitored,” said the reverend.

Reverend Lalbiakmawia (centre), accompanied by Reverend Sangthanga (extreme right) and Valalnema Vantwal, the adviser to MPG, at a press meet in Aizawl to urge the political parties to continue to stick to the partnership agreement.

The “partnership agreement of MPF and political parties” for the 2018 assembly polls said:

“For various elections in Mizoram – Mizoram Legislative Elections 2008, 2013; MP (Parliamentary ) election 2009, 2014; village council election 2009, 2012, 2015; Aizawl municipal corporation election 2010, 2015; Aizawl local council election 2012, 2015 and various district council elections, we used to make (sign) a Memorandum of Understanding with the leaders of different political parties and the Mizoram People Forum. It has led to good results. As the elections in Mizoram have become fair, it is known and watched over by the people in and outside the state. This is the result of the hard work and effort given by all of us.”

Insurgency

The reason for such an agreement rests on the history of insurgency in the state. The Mizo Accord of 1986 put an end to insurgency among the Mizos but the late 1990s saw a rise of armed groups in the minority areas. According to the reverend, “In the 1998s assembly polls, we saw a steep rise in election expenditure, which went even further in the 2003 polls. We also noticed the involvement of the underground movement in the polls. In the northern part of the state, there were the armed groups of the Mara community. On the western side, there was the Bru Liberation Army, on the Eastern side, the liberation armies of Myanmar and some Naga underground groups were getting involved in the state elections. It worried the Church and the Mizo civil society. We urgently felt the need to curb it so that there is peace in the state.”

“So in 2006, the Mizo People’s Forum was set up keeping the 2008 assembly polls in mind. We sought the cooperation of everyone who wanted the peace to continue in Mizoram. The political parties understood our concern. The public was happy because it led to a considerable change in the selection of candidates by the parties.” One of the points of the MPF agreement with the parties for 2018 said, “Everyone shall bravely protest taking advantage of terrorists and use of weapons.”

The parties’ agreement with the MPF covers all aspects of electioneering – election expenses, selection of candidates, promises in the party manifesto and the manner of the campaign. As per the ECI’s model code of conduct, an MLA candidate is not permitted to spend more than Rs 20 lakh as poll expense. Speaking about the Mizoram elections, the new state CEO of ECI Ashish Kundra told The Wire, “In other states, political parties often feel the limit set by the EC is less but here we faced a different issue. It is perhaps the only state where the NGOs and some political parties urged us to lessen the upper limit of 20 lakh.”

MPF has its argument for such a demand. “Since Mizoram is a small state with small constituencies, we feel that it can be adhered to. Some candidates used to mortgage their property, etc. to contest polls and they would go bankrupt after losing the elections. A few have killed themselves because of debt. Some political leaders also felt it needed to be stopped. So we have made certain rules so that useless expenditures can be curbed and no candidate needs a lot of money for their campaign,” said Reverend Lalbiakmawia.

For instance, no candidate is allowed to host a community feast or picnic as they can be expensive; only five banners, 50 flags and 30 posters are allowed per candidate, distribution of cash and commodities like rice, footballs and jerseys (It is the main sport of the state), mobile handsets, etc. are strictly not allowed; a candidate can neither borrow money from anyone nor goods from any shop during the campaign. Even the sizes of flags, posters and banners are pre-decided. “Banner shall not be bigger than 4/8 feet. Poster shall not be bigger than 3/4 feet. Only flag can be used in a two-wheelers and it must not be bigger than 1/2 feet. Only one flag per three-wheeler and four-wheeler is allowed and can’t be bigger than 2/3 feet. Flag which is taller than 3 feet is not allowed,” said the MPF’s agreement with the parties for the 2018 assembly polls. Taking out processions after the poll dates are announced is not allowed. So is the use of loudspeakers.

Size of poll posters cannot be more than 3/4 feet.

A report released by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) on Mizoram elections in Aizawl on November 22, after a study of the affidavits submitted by the candidates contesting the coming assembly polls, named three contestants declaring their movable assets between Rs 6,000 and 10,000. Interestingly, it also noted that among the total 209 candidates in the fray, 116 are crorepatis, a steep rise from 75 of the 142 candidates in the 2013 polls. MPF members called it “a growing worry of the Mizo society.” With more closely contested assembly polls this time in Mizoram, they felt money power could play a role even after the polls if none get a simple majority and they would need to be more vigilant about it.

An added worry for the MPF was the use of social media by the political parties in their campaign. “That is why for the first time we have added a clause in the agreement that none can spread fake information through WhatsApp or Facebook. The public is also vigilant because we said we would demand CID investigation against any fake news spread during the elections,” said Reverend Lalbiakmawia.

Public concerts

Music being an important part of Mizo society, many candidates traditionally hire musicians to hold public concerts in their support. However, MPF rules have put a stop to it as it can be an expensive affair, but much to the opposition of the professional singers. In 2013, the MPF came under attack from Mizo Zaima Inzawmkhawm (MZI), a federation of Mizo musicians for asking candidates not to hire public entertainers. They felt that assembly polls come once in five years and it was a time for musicians to earn some extra money by singing in street concerts and rallies.

The MPF hasn’t relented. On November 21, during the launch of Congress’s poll manifesto in Aizawl, a musician did sing into a loudspeaker. On being asked about it, the reverend said in his defence, “See, we can’t stop any musician from singing for a political party or a candidate if they don’t take any money for it.”

That the Church-backed poll watchdog gives emphasis to the morality of the community comes to the fore when you read some of the rules set for selection of poll candidates. For instance, he/she should be “a person without any record of infidelity, “free from alcohol and other substances”, “diligent and faithful”. The ADR report, though, pointed out eight candidates with criminal charges contesting the November 28 polls, including chief minister Lal Thanhawla and the main opposition MNF president Zoramthanga. Among the major parties, two of the 39 candidates of the BJP, three each out of 40 candidates of the Congress and MNF have criminal cases against them. In the 2013 polls, only three candidates with criminal cases registered against them contested the polls.

Large number of party flags are allowed only at an election rally as per the agreement.

Hierarchical set-up

Reverend B. Sangthanga, another office-bearer of the MPF, explained the overall hierarchical set up of the initiative. “Aside from us at the central office, there are constituency-wise forums which further crystallises into local forums. We borrow volunteers for poll-related work from the three NGOs associated with the Church.”

Also read: Mizoram Elections: CM Thanhawla Among Nine Candidates Facing Criminal Cases

This year, the need for volunteers has grown because unlike in the last assembly polls, the MPF has allowed the candidates to carry out door-to-door campaigning, but only while being accompanied by an MPF representative. “We have revised that rule this time at the request of the political parties but the candidate has to give prior intimation of it to our local leaders who would then assign a volunteer to accompany the candidate. This is to stop any candidate from making false promises to the voters and elicit votes. For us, it is an unfair means,” said Reverend Sangthanga. Additionally, the ‘partnership agreement’ states that “manifesto, policy and programme which will only be fulfilled and achieved shall be framed.”

All candidates adhere to the rule but unofficially speak of it as “a difficulty”. “Sometimes, we decide to go on a door-to-door campaign just a night before but as per the rule, it has to be intimidated a day before, preferably through an application to the local MPF unit. It is an additional hassle,” said a Congress candidate from a constituency in Aizawl district. Another candidate from the MNF added, “Many times, our poll candidates have given prior applications but have to postpone the door-to-door campaign because of lack of volunteers. Once we were told to go alone as the local MPF leader is busy with another candidate on a door-to-door campaign.”

Candidates are allowed to set up one election information office per constituency.

Apart from such alleged violations committed by MPF members, the candidates too commit them. At a press meet held By MPF in Aizawl on November 22 to remind the political parties to adhere to the agreement, Reverend Sangthanga said, “It has come to our notice that one candidate held a community feast outside of Aizawl and some had used children to cheer a leader. This is not allowed.”

Why it works

Even though it is not an official election watchdog, what gives MPF the authority to assert itself? “Apart from the fact that Church plays a big role in our Mizo society, the civil society groups are also respected a lot. They are also considered to be the moral drivers of our society. Therefore, civil society activists are respected a lot. So political parties can’t defy them easily, particularly not during an election,” explained a senior reporter with a Mizo daily.

Also read: ‘I Won’t Need the BJP to Form Government in Mizoram’: Zoramthanga

The MPF central leaders are, meanwhile, busy readying a list of volunteers for each polling booth for the polling day. “We lay benches for the voters so that they don’t have to stand in long queues; organise water for them and help out the elderly to walk up to the booth and cast their vote without any problem,” said Reverend Lalbiakmawia. EC State CEO Kundra added, “We allow them to operate around the booths because it is a practice accepted by the community and is done only to help us conduct a smooth polling.”

In the last few years, the MPF’s efforts are being seen as a model by religious organisations of some Christian majority neighbouring states but have not been able to emulate them. “In 2012, the Naga Baptist Council invited us to Kohima to give a presentation. I was a part of the delegation. For two days we deliberated on it. But it has not been successful in bringing a consensus between the civil society groups, the tribal leaders and the political parties about it,” said Reverend Lalbiakmawia. The reason is, he pointed out, “Unlike the Naga society, which has many tribes coming under the identity of a Naga, the Mizo society is homogenous.”

All images by Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty.

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