If there is anyone in Mizoram anxiously waiting for the counting of votes of the assembly elections on December 11, it is Zoramthanga. For a decade, the president of the state’s principal opposition party, the Mizo National Front (MNF), has been waiting to recapture power, lost to the Congress in 2008.
Will the tide turn in his favour this time? Like the incumbent chief minister Lal Thanhawla snatched power from him after two consecutive terms in 2008, will he be doing the same to him after the November 28 polling? The veteran Mizo leader shrugged his shoulders, smiled that broad toothy smile of his, saying, “Well, I hope so. Let’s see”.
Eighty-four-year-old Zoramthanga is the inheritor of the proud legacy of MNF, led by Laldenga. On his demise in 1990, Zoramthanga was declared the MNF president and has led the party since. However, his electoral journey has been challenged by another satrap, 76-year-old Lal Thanhawla, from whom Laldenga had taken over in 1986, albeit for only a term. As expected, the November 28 assembly polls are finally a face-off between Lal Thanhawla and Zoramthanga.
In an interview with The Wire, Zoramthanga delineated why he is confident of a win this time around. Excerpts:
It has not been a particularly shining era for the MNF since 2008. How many seats do you think it will be able to pocket this time?
We will get two-third majority this time; I believe we will get 25-30 seats. We will be able to form the next government without the help from any other party.
What is giving you the confidence? Is it the anti-incumbency of the two-term-old Lal Thanhawla government?
There is anti-incumbency certainly. But more than that, there are some other issues related to the government policies that people in general are not very happy about. There is a total failure of administration and financial mismanagement. Even the government officials are not getting their salary on time; the government contractors’ bills are pending. Look at the condition of the roads. People are beginning to say that all the roads of Mizoram are in the ICU.
Among the government’s policies, the new land use policy ended up helping mostly the Congress supporters. They are now conveniently setting it aside and saying that if they come to power again, they would replace it with a new economic development policy, which is nothing but a response to MNF’s election promise to bring socio-economic development policy if elected to power.
However, the biggest concern of both the church and the civil society groups that we are raising in this election is the government’s decision to lift the ban on sale of alcohol in the state in 2015. That policy decision hugely affected the common people; it has become a headache of almost every household. In the last two-three years, about 6,000 to 7,000 people have died due to alcohol consumption, which is a large number in a small state like ours. In the last two-three years, no less than 500 policemen have died due to alcohol abuse. It is mainly because of the bad quality alcohol that is available in the liquor shops – set up in the state after the ban was lifted. The church and all the NGOs are very unhappy with the government’s decision. There are a lot of widows and mourning parents because of that decision.
Chief minister Lal Thanhawla, in his defence, told mediapersons that lifting the ban had put an end to the black market that thrived in the state for the last 21 years.
But the point I am raising is of low-quality alcohol. I don’ know where from the government supplies are coming, what is being mixed in it, because of which so many people have lost their lives in just two-three years. Many had also been drinking alcohol during the Prohibition days by buying from the grey market but they were of good quality; didn’t kill people within a few years. This is a new phenomenon. Some people recently told me that they now prefer drinking the local rice beer rather than buying the government-imported liquor.
What is MNF’s promise to people if it comes to power?
We have four main promises. Our first promise is self-sufficiency in terms of food supply. But of course, it will take time, may take ten years. What is giving me confidence about achieving it is because we have land which is quite enough to feed the whole population of Mizoram. We have 70,000 hectares of cultivable land which is enough to grow rice, wheat, vegetables, oil seeds, etc. But what we need is a proper mechanism by which we distribute the land in terms of usage for the kind of food we need to grow. It is possible.
The second promise is to bring in a policy to augment bamboo plantation across the state; it will be our flagship programme. In five years’ time, we will try to advance the state’s economy through this policy; hoping that its implementation will enable every family to earn an income of Rs 5-15 lakhs every year. The problem that I see is lack of link roads. Today, almost every village is connected; of course, the quality of roads would need to improve. But what I am talking about is creation of bamboo link roads, meaning connecting those roads with the existing village roads which in turn are connected to the roads coming to the towns. This way, such productions would get linked to a market which is crucial for the success of the programme.
The third promise is social reform. Mizoram has a problem of drug abuse. Besides many people dying of liquor consumption, many are also into drug consumption. It is a huge social issue here. Of course, every government has been trying to address it; this government too, but it has been unsuccessful in providing good care to the affected people. We promise to set up a better system for their treatment and rehabilitation. My intention is to join hands with doctors, evangelists, sportspersons, educationists, etc. and bring about a quality centre for their wholesome rehabilitation.
Our fourth promise to the people is providing good healthcare.
You are one of the founding members of the BJP’s NEDA. Lately, what we notice is that MNF is keeping a safe distance from it. Neither you nor any representative of your party was present in the NEDA conference held in Guwahati in May. Is this partnership proving itself to be baggage for your party?
NEDA is nothing but a branch of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The name, NEDA, itself explains it. We are with the NDA at the parliament level; it is a partnership for parliamentary elections. But it is not for state elections.
Be it in Manipur or Meghalaya, we have seen NEDA partners coming together to form a government. Some are post-poll alliances, like in Meghalaya. So if you fall short of absolute majority after the counting of votes on December 11, will you include it in your government if the BJP manages to win a few seats?
I believe I will not need it. Such an occasion wouldn’t arise. I always say, when your wife is in good health, why look for a girlfriend. No need.
In Mizoram, for the last two decades, it has not been so much of an electoral contest between the Congress and the MNF but more of a battle between Lal Thanhawla and Zoramthanga. Why don’t we see any young leader taking over the reins of the state,like we have seen in other northeastern states?
There are a lot of young leaders in politics in Mizoram today, even in MNF. But yes, they are not at the top. This is because of the history of Mizoram. The people who brought about a change to the state, leading to the Mizo Accord in 1986, are still alive. MNF is not a political party, it is a movement. From 1966 onwards, MNF has been leading the movement. So when the movement leaders are alive, nobody within the ranks tries to be the leader or challenge their leadership. This was true even in the Congress at the national level. Leaders of the freedom movement like Pandit Nehru and Sardar Patel were leading the government too till the time they were alive. Then the new generation took over. This will be true for MNF too.