Voters go to polls in the northeastern state today. It marks the beginning of a long and bitter season of politicking—which will culminate with the ‘Kumbh Mela’ of elections—the Lok Sabha polls in the summer. Here’s our quick guide to the Mizoram election—and most importantly—an introduction to our election project: ‘24 Questions.
Researched by: Anannya Parekh
First, an introduction to ‘24 Questions
The 2023 elections problem: Next year, the largest democracy in the world will go to the polls. Our elections are truly a marvel. We all should be not just proud but also fully engaged as citizens. Yet, many of us are more likely to actively avoid the news—which will become 100X more shrill, exhausting and polarised. Most of us will never understand how our democracy works. We won’t really know what motivates voters, how parties craft their strategies, what opinion polls show or hide. We will instead be drowning in ideological rants, clickbait and a tsunami of SEO-optimised news stories.
Our election project: plans to disrupt this maddening template of election news—across multiple formats: text, audio and video. All of it designed to help you understand what makes our democracy tick—without jargon or rants (and a sense of humour). Here’s what you can look forward to in the coming months:
- Deep dives by independent experts—with true area expertise—'translated' by splainer editors for a layperson.
- YouTube vids that offer context and explanation to help you understand deeper issues—think of them as video equivalents of our Big Stories.
- A WhatsApp channel that shares creative (and shareworthy) infographics communicating core facts. It reflects our view that we need to stop complaining about the so-called ‘WhatsApp University’—and own it instead.
- IRL town halls with different topics—set up as an Ask Me Anything with experts. We want you to drive the questions—and also spark a real and respectful conversation
- Game nights where we use board games like Shasn to get you to discuss political strategy in a fun, entertaining way.
The main takeaway: We want you, the people, to engage, reflect and, yes, relish this great spectacle of democracy.
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Moving on to Mizoram: The background
The context: The BJP has been doing very well in the northeast. At the start of 2023, it coasted to a comfortable victory in Nagaland—while its allies took power in Tripura and Meghalaya. The Congress, OTOH, suffered a series of humiliating losses. So will the party continue on cruise control in Mizoram, as well? Answer: it’s complicated.
First, the players: Until 2018, there were two main contenders for the Mizo gaddi: the Congress and the Mizo National Front (MNF). And they took turns in power, playing musical chairs from one election to the next.
But in 2018, Congress got walloped—winning only 5 seats down from 34 in 2013. MNF swept the polls with 26 out of 40 seats. But more importantly, Congress lost its spot as the primary opposition party to the Zoram People’s Movement (ZPM)—which won six seats.
As for the BJP: It only won one seat in the previous election—and is confident of winning two this time around. But the BJP’s biggest problem lies not in Mizoram—but in Manipur—which may prove to be the downfall of the saffron party in a Christian-dominated state.
The Manipur factor
The ruling MNF is the BJP’s NDA ally in Delhi—and things looked pretty good until the neighbouring state was rocked by severe violence in May. The ethnic conflict in Manipur pits the dominant Meitei community—which is Hindu—against the Kuki-Zo tribes—which are primarily Christian. The BJP Chief Minister Biren Singh—who is Meitei—is seen as anti-Christian, and as promoting an RSS agenda.
‘Foreigners’ vs ‘brothers’: Tribes in Manipur have close ties to communities in Myanmar—specifically between the Kuki and Chin communities. There is also a small Kuki-Zomi community in the Chittagong Hills of Bangladesh. A number of refugees have sought shelter in Mizoram—where they have received a warm welcome:
Mizoram is currently hosting about 33,000 Chin people from Myanmar and some 800 Kuki-Chins from Bangladesh. The Chins and Kuki-Chins are ethnically related to the majority Mizos of Mizoram, who prefer to refer to their “brothers and sisters”... not refugees or foreigners.
But, but, but: The Meiteis in Manipur have long attacked the "large-scale illegal immigration by Myanmarese and Bangladeshis"—which threatens their identity. And they have blamed the current violence on “illegal migrants from Burma.”
BJP who? As a result, Mizoram CM Zoramthanga has been scrambling to disown his party’s bada bhai. Last month, he publicly said: “This is not the time to be close to the BJP.” It's so bad that Zoramthanga refused to share a stage with PM Modi—who was forced to cancel his visit to the state.
In fact, the MNF has openly defied the union government on a number of issues:
Despite being a BJP ally, it defied the Central government by refusing to conduct biometric identification of refugees from Myanmar recently who are of the same ethnicity as the Mizo people. Zoramthanga said the Central government instructed the Mizoram government to push back all the refugees from Myanmar, but he flatly refused, adding he was not afraid of the Central government. He has also opposed the idea of a uniform civil code promoted by the BJP.
Point to note: Mizo-Manipur tensions mirror the previous clash between Mizoram and BJP-ruled Assam in 2021. Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma too has targeted “outsiders” from Myanmar and Bangladesh.
The Mizo identity card: This election is essentially a competition over who is the true defender of the state’s identity. MNF used to be a militant organisation—and ethno-nationalism is a comfortable space for Zoramthanga. That’s why MNF is expected to once again sweep the polls. Its only competition is ZPM—which is competing to be more Mizo than the MNF. Meanwhile, Congress is reduced to accusing Zoramthanga of being a BJP stooge.
Quote to note: In the northeast, the BJP has successfully sold itself as the agent of economic development. Those who vote for the party or its allies benefit from the so-called ‘double engine’ sarkar—i.e goodies from the union government. But due to Manipur, people are now sharply focused on its identity politics—which doesn’t bode well for the party:
From how I see it, they do not want Christians. They are trying to annihilate us. If they come to power, we will meet the same fate as Manipur. See how many Kuki churches have been burned by Meiteis. Till now, not a word has been said about it by the BJP. So we believe they are part of the instigators of this violence.
Poll predictions: According to opinion polls, MNF is expected to retain power but with fewer seats: between 17 to 21. The biggest winner will be ZPM—which may bag between 10 to 14 seats. Congress is expected to stay just about where it is: six to 10 seats. What to watch for: Rumours that the BJP will shift allegiances from MNF to ZPM—which will make for an interesting Lok Sabha contest next year.
The bottomline: Mizoram may be a tiny state–and will hardly affect any national party’s fortunes. But the repeated tensions that pit states ruled by the BJP against its regional allies are a red flag for its fortunes in the northeast.
NewsLaundry has a detailed ground report from Mizoram—and is the best read out there. The Hindu and Hindustan Times look at how the ‘refugee’ issue is playing out. Economic Times has more on MNF distancing itself from the BJP. We highly recommend reading our Big Story on the Manipur violence for more context.