Mizoram Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla, all set to assume office for a fifth time after leading the Congress party to a huge electoral win in the state assembly polls, is an acknowledged, tall political leader in the northeastern state for over a record four and half decades.
Assiduous and tenacious, Lal Thanhawla established the Congress base in the tribal and Christian dominated state literally like a lone ranger, with his untiring and determined effort since he joined the party 46 years ago.
"Due to his years of exceedingly hard work, sterling leadership quality and a deep commitment to the cause of people, Lal Thanhawla has become the most admired leader of Mizoram," said veteran Congress leader Birajit Sinha.
The 71-year-old Lal Thanhawla first became the chief minister of Mizoram in 1984 when under his leadership the party swept the assembly polls in the state, which shares unfenced borders with Myanmar (404 km) and Bangladesh (318 km).
Son of Hmartawnphunga Sailo and Lalsawmliani Chawngthu, Lal Thanhawla completed his matriculation in 1958, his Intermediate in Arts in 1961, and his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1964.
Starting his career as a recorder in the office of inspector of schools, Thanhawla did a brief stint in the Assam Cooperative Apex Bank as an assistant. At a young age of 24, in 1966, the restless Mizo was drawn to the Mizo National Front (MNF), a militant outfit floated by Laldenga that sought resolution of the region's problems through resort to armed conflict. As secretary of the MNF, he was subsequently arrested by the security forces and incarcerated in jails.
A year later in 1967, he was released from jail in Silchar in southern Assam, and joined the Congress party. He was soon appointed as the chief organiser of the Aizawl District Congress Committee.
Six years later, in 1973, Lal Thanhawla, a music lover and the founder president of the Mizo Journalists Association, was elected the state Congress president, the post he is still holding after 40 long years, a record.
Mizoram, one of the large districts of Assam, was accorded the status of a Union Territory in 1973, and in 1978 and 1979 Lal Thanhawla was elected to the state assembly. In 1984, under his leadership, the Congress party stormed to power and he became the party's first chief minister.
When June 30, 1986, the most significant bi-partite peace accord was signed between the government of India led by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and the separatist outfit MNF, he gave up his chief ministership following the request of the central leadership in favour of rebel supremo and MNF chief Laldenga.
In the first state assembly elections after mountainous Mizoram become a full-fledged, 23rd state in February 1987, he was elected the chief minister again and continued to serve in that post after being re-elected in the 1989 and 1993 polls.
Since 1978, Lal Thanhawla, a close friend of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, has been elected to the state assembly for a record nine times from different assembly constituencies. His winning streak was, however, broken when he was defeated in the Serchhip constituency in the 1998 assembly polls.
The surprise defeat impelled the northeastern state's five times chief minister to get himself elected from two assembly constituencies in central Mizoram since 2008.
Writer, scholar and historian Sekhar Datta said: "His critics may differ, his rivals for power may deny, but the incontrovertible fact remains that Lal Thanhawla personifies the Congress in Mizoram, having built up the party from scratch brick by brick."
"This tiny northeastern state looking on the map of India like the hood of a cobra had a chequered and crisis-ridden history since the late '50s when it was part of the composite state of Assam - designated as the Mizo district council," Datta told IANS.
He said that in the '60s when the Congress party was little known to the Mizos and the region was in the throes of food crisis and other scarcities, an inspired and idealist youth Lal Thanhawla set in motion what then appeared to be an impossible task - of building a solid base for the Congress party ruling at the national level.
"Scaling high hills with a small bag containing a water bottle and the bare necessities, the sturdy, handsome young man commenced reaching the doorsteps of his brethren and impressing upon them the need for solidarity and integration with the larger and multicultural India," said Datta, who studied the northeast politics very closely.
He said: "Perhaps Lal Thanhawla is the lone Congress leader in India to address Rajiv Gandhi by first name. He has been the living symbol and spirit of the Congress in Mizoram for over four decades."
Lal Thanhawla is the father of a son and two daughters, and his wife Lal Riliani is a social activist and a strong crusader against use of tobacco products in the state and the northeast.