The tiny state of Mizoram is the last holdout against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wave that has swept India’s remote northeast since Prime Minister Narendra Modi stormed to a historic win in the 2014 general election.
The state of a million people sends just one lawmaker to parliament’s lower house, but the BJP will be keen to dislodge the ruling Congress from its last bastion in the region.
Mizoram is among five states voting for a new assembly ahead of a national election due by May next year. In recent decades, the Congress and the Mizo National Front (MNF) have battled for power in Mizoram, but the Hindu nationalist BJP is looking to make a dent this time in the 40-seat assembly, riding the Modi wave and promising development in a state bogged down by weak infrastructure and lack of industry. The results of the state election on Nov. 28 will be announced on Dec. 11, along with the four other states.
Reuters spoke to Mizoram’s BJP President John V Hluna, who talked about setting up local breweries in the deeply religious state, why he thinks other party lawmakers will defect to the BJP after the election, and the burden of the Hindutva tag in majority-Christian Mizoram.
Q: The BJP has never won an assembly seat in Mizoram. How will the party perform this time? A: We might just be able to form the government. We are hopeful of winning 21 to 25 seats.
Q: Why are you so optimistic? A: Firstly, people are really tired of (Congress Chief Minister) Pu Hawla (‘Pu’ is a Mizo honorific). To replace him, Pu Zoramthanga (leader of the main opposition MNF) thinks he will be the one… We promise change, we promise development, development and development. And when they look at Pu Modi, they believe he will deliver. So, the people are telling themselves it could be possible and are looking longingly at the BJP. And we are hopeful that this could translate into votes.
Q: Mizoram sends just one lawmaker to the Lok Sabha. Is the BJP central leadership giving enough importance to the state? Are you satisfied with the support? A: Not satisfied. They are not coming (to the state) like we want them to and our sentiment is almost hurt by it ... No national leader has visited my constituency. We do feel we are not given enough importance.
Q: Do you think the party is suffering because of this? A: Yes, we suffer because of it. Also, because we Mizos don’t speak Hindi or English that well, the prime minister or president or central ministers don’t have that much effect. They should give us more money so that we can run things on our own. But there is no money, we are very poor. If there is a lot of money, we can do well.
Q: The Congress got a majority in the last state election. How many do you think they will win this time? A: Nobody else will cross 20 seats. We are hopeful that we will win the maximum seats.
Q: Why should people who earlier voted for the Congress or the MNF switch to the BJP? A: In states under Modi (BJP) and even in neighbouring states, when people see a lot of development, they want it. Therefore, a dejected Congress and MNF attack us saying “the party is anti-Christian, they want to turn us into Hindus” or “would you dare to dance any more even inside the church if the BJP comes to power?”
We are under severe attack from the Congress and also the MNF who are trying to destroy us. But in people’s hearts, the need to know the truth arose because of these attacks.
Q: A lot of people are saying that the BJP is a Hindu party and anti-Christian, and so on. What do you say to that? A: We are all Mizos, we are all Christians. A Hindu BJP functionary from Uttar Pradesh will not come to Mizoram as a candidate. Our candidate is a Mizo who is also a Christian.
We tell people that the BJP respects and honours the protection we get under the Indian constitution’s Section 371G. Whoever hears us accepts this.
Q: Alcohol prohibition is one of the big issues in the state. The MNF has said that if it comes to power, it will revert to total prohibition. What will be the BJP’s policy? A: We will not allow import (alcohol) from outside Mizoram. We will make it with the raw material that we have. And we will also export it.
Q: The only alcohol that Mizoram really produces is grape wine, which is also not of high quality…
A: We have ginger to make a lot of ginger beer … The grapes that are used now, the quality is not good. To do it properly, we will call experts. We have pang baal (a type of root), iskut (chayote), we harvest a lot of pineapples, a lot of banana, even guava. We will carefully make it with the help of experts.
We feel we have enough raw material to supply the demand in Mizoram and to export it. Farmers will reap the rewards of working hard and will become rich.
Q: Can the policy be implemented immediately? A: There is nothing in writing, but we will implement it right away.
Q: What is the biggest challenge that you face? A: It’s basically Hindutva. Even in (church) prayer meetings, they say let’s pray so that the BJP does not come to power. At a church service I attended in Saitual, someone said such and such number of Christians died and were persecuted after the BJP came to power in 2014, and in 2016 and 2017, etc. The self-appointed expert in statistics blamed the BJP. And people don’t hesitate to say such things even in church. That is our biggest problem.
Q: BJP President Amit Shah has said that by Christmas the state will have a BJP government? How do you plan to achieve that? A: If no other single party is able to form a government, they will compete in defecting to the BJP. Especially with the Congress, I think they will all try to switch sides.
Q: What about partnering with you in a coalition? A: No, not as a coalition. Pu Hawla’s ideology and teaching is that Mizoram is so small and poor that it is good to join the central ruling party. Since a long time ago, DoNER (Development of North Eastern Region) Minister Jitendra Singh has told me about five times that (Chief Minister) Lalthanhawla wants to switch to the BJP. But we want change, so if he is CM, there will be no change and there will be no development in Mizoram, so we object to it. (The Congress has rejected this allegation)
Q: Are you saying the BJP is not open to any coalition? A: If the circumstance compels it, then it will be necessary. But we expect lawmakers to switch to our side.
Reporting by David Lalmalsawma; Editing by Tony Tharakan; This story is web-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission