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Symbolism gains ground

Religious symbolism is up a few notches this election campaign in Mizoram following the birth of an Opposition alliance that includes the BJP.

The Church, whose watchful eyes have kept poll campaigns largely free from din, defacement and disruption in this predominantly Christian state, however, is concerned at the trend.

“The political parties must debate political and administrative issues. They must be more concerned about development and administration rather than try to be holier than each other,” Rev. Lalzuithanga, senior executive secretary of the synod of the Mizoram Presbyterian Church, told The Telegraph.

The Presbyterian Church counts more than half the state’s population as its members.

Gegong Apang had set up the first BJP government in the Northeast in the 1990s, in Arunachal Pradesh. Now the party has ventured into the unlikeliest of territories — Christian-majority Nagaland and Mizoram.

If the BJP has gone with the ruling coalition in Nagaland, in Mizoram it is part of the nascent United Democratic Front (UDF), an alliance of eight Opposition parties. Both coalitions are supporting the National Democratic Alliance at the Centre.

The UDF’s declared support for the NDA has heated up the rhetoric ahead of the vote for the lone Lok Sabha seat in Mizoram, where Christians make up nearly 90 per cent of the population.

It’s also given Congress chief minister Lal Thanhawla, branded “un-Christian” by the Opposition before last November’s Assembly elections, a chance to hit back.

At a rally at Kawnpui in northern Mizoram’s Kolasib district on March 26, Lal Thanhawla was quoted as saying that if the NDA returned to power at the Centre, the minority Christians would suffer the consequences. His alleged comments have prompted a BJP complaint to the Election Commission.

“Chief minister Lal Thanhawla’s remarks have violated the model code of conduct and were detrimental to national integrity and secularism in India,” the BJP has said.

Earlier, the Mizoram Congress had warned in a statement that if the NDA were voted to power, it might ban cow slaughter in the state.

The main Opposition Mizo National Front (MNF), which is part of the UDF, had earlier attacked Lal Thanhawla for sporting a tilak during a ceremony in Mumbai, terming his action “un-Christian”.

Making it an issue ahead of last winter’s state elections, the party had organised an “anti-idol worship” rally in Aizawl.

The Congress had retaliated by printing images of Laldenga, the late founder-president of the MNF, at a place of worship.

Congress nominee C.L. Ruala, 79, now campaigning in southern Mizoram, too, has warned the people that “secularism and minorities” would face a “threat” under a BJP-led government.

A political analyst, however, said that what matters most to the voters is development and not sectarian issues.

“We have witnessed that election campaigning on religious lines does not translate into votes,” said Lallianchhunga, assistant professor (political science) at Mizoram University.

“The Congress, led by the tilak-sporting Lal Thanhawla, winning 34 of the 40 seats in the last Assembly elections is a clear example. The Congress government had done well during the previous term and the people gave them another mandate.”

Asked about his personal views on the BJP, Rev. Lalzuithanga, the Presbyterian Church leader said: “I don’t see any anti-Christian attitude in the BJP. However, some radical Hindu groups have appeared to be calling the tune under BJP rule.”

Speaking to this newspaper, MNF president and former chief minister Zoramthanga defended the Opposition alliance’s decision to support the NDA. The MNF has historically been opposed to the Congress.

“Supporting a Congress-led alliance is out of the question for us. We don’t have any option other than to support the NDA,” he said.

“The NDA is not a party but a combination of various like-minded parties, just like the UDF is. India has a brighter future under the NDA than under the UPA in terms of development.”

During its decade-long rule in Mizoram from 1998 to 2008, the MNF had supported the NDA in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. “We have never supported the Congress,” Zoramthanga said.

One key feature of Mizoram elections is the “common platforms” held across the state, where the influential Mizoram People’s Forum, a citizen’s body that acts as the Church’s election watchdog, invites candidates to interact with voters.

Candidates from rival parties attend the platforms together, peacefully answering voters’ questions.

Before elections in the state, the MPF also issues guidelines to the contestants to curb defacement of walls, decibel levels, or disruptive rallies. The 20-point charter it had released before the November polls is still in place.

The UDF has fielded 47-year-old Robert Romawia Royte, a government employee-turned- successful entrepreneur, to take on Ruala. A retired IAS officer, M. Lalmanzuala, is contesting on an Aam Aadmi Party ticket, making the election a triangular fight.

Mizoram votes on April 11