Mizoram: Has rebel-turned-CM Zoramthanga reached the end of an extraordinary career?
This is the third time that Zoramthanga has faced defeat in his electoral history, and this setback may possibly mark a concluding chapter in his career

Mizoram: Has rebel-turned-CM Zoramthanga reached the end of an extraordinary career?

Zoramthanga’s remarkable journey vividly illustrates the resilience and inclusiveness inherent in the beauty of Indian democracy

From a guerilla hideout in the Arakan jungle to the chief minister’s office, Zoramthanga’s political journey reflects resilience, strategic acumen, and an unwavering commitment to the people’s aspirations.

The 79-year-old three-time chief minister on Monday (December 4) encountered his third electoral setback as the results of the 40-seat Mizoram Assembly elections were declared.

Facing a humble defeat in his attempt for a second term from the Aizawl East-I seat, the rebel leader-turned-politician succumbed to the electoral prowess of a relatively low-profile candidate from the Zoram People’s Movement, Lalthansanga. The latter capitalised on a potent anti-incumbency wave to secure victory, marking a significant moment in the political landscape.

Lalthansanga bagged 10,727 votes, beating Zoramthanga, who polled 8,626.

This is the third time that Zoramthanga has faced defeat in his electoral history, and this setback may possibly mark a concluding chapter in his career.

Entering politics

Born on July 13, 1944, in a small village called Samthang near the Myanmar border, in Champhai district of Mizoram, Zoramthanga started his elementary education in his village. After completing high school from Gandhi Memorial High School in Champhai, he graduated in English Literature from DM College in Imphal.

Then, a young Zoramthanga wanted to pursue a career in academics but the troubled sociopolitical situation back home forced him to return to Mizoram, and he joined the Laldenga-led MNF, then a banned underground outfit.

Zoramthanga once said, “My mother aspired for me to be a pastor, yet fate led me into politics,” encapsulating the serendipitous nature of his foray into the political arena.

So, in 1966, the fresh graduate was an insurgent. In 1969, when all the MNF cadres went to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), Zoramthanga was spotted by Laldenga as one of the promising leaders of the outfit and was engaged by him as his secretary, a position Zoramthanga held for seven years. In 1979, Zoramthanga was elevated to the position of vice-president and went on to become Laldenga’s right-hand man till the latter died in 1990. He had travelled to several south Asian countries as Laldenga’s emissary.

New role

Zoramthanga came aboveground following the historic Mizo Accord of June 30, 1986. The Accord Mizoram, then a Union Territory, was elevated to a full-fledged state in February 1987.

From a former rebel leader who once waged war against India, Zoramthanga transitioned into a new role, being elected to the state’s inaugural Assembly in 1987 and subsequently appointed as the finance minister. He was first elected as MLA from his home constituency Champhai. He retained this seat until he faced his first electoral setback in the 2008 Assembly polls, succumbing to defeat against a Congress newcomer, TT Zothansanga.

Zoramthanga succeeded Laldenga when the latter died in 1990 and became the MNF president.

Zoramthanga forged a pre-poll alliance with Mizoram People’s Conference before the 1998 elections to take on the Congress led by Lal Thanhawla. The MNF-MPC combine won 33 seats of the 40 seats.

Following the victory, he became the CM in the coalition government, which, however, did not last long. The MNF went on to form the government, and singlehandedly won the 2003 elections, letting Zoramthanga remain in the CM’s office for a second consecutive term.

In 2008 elections, MNF was reduced to just three seats from 21, with Zoramthanga himself biting the dust in his traditional constituency Champhai where he remained undefeated since 1987.

Back to power

Zoramthanga steered his party back to power in the 2018 elections, securing victory with 26 seats. Despite contesting from the new constituency of Aizawl East-I, he successfully led his party to form the government.

However, the Zoramthanga-led administration faced significant challenges during its tenure, primarily due to the disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic resulted in a two-year stall in development initiatives, impacting the government’s ability to fulfil numerous promises made prior to the 2018 elections. Zoramthanga attributed the unfulfilled commitments to a decrease in funds from the central government, a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In addition to the developmental setbacks, the government grappled with rising anti-incumbency sentiments, contributing to a decline in popularity among the masses. Notably, the administration maintained a clean record in major corruption cases, but the prevailing dissatisfaction among the public posed a significant challenge to the ruling MNF government.

Victory of Indian democracy

Zoramthanga’s remarkable journey from being a rebel leader to the position of chief minister of an Indian state vividly illustrates the resilience and inclusiveness inherent in the beauty of Indian democracy.

During his time underground, Zoramthanga encountered numerous daring adventures that, in his view, possess the cinematic potential to become captivating Hollywood blockbusters.

In 1966, when he was appointed secretary of the MNF underground government, Zoramthanga accompanied Laldenga to East Pakistan, the initial hideout of the MNF cadres.

After the fall of Dhaka in the Bangladesh war, they escaped miraculously to Rangoon (now Yangon) pretending to be refugees headed for Myanmar. In March 1972, they fled from Rangoon to Karachi on a Pakistani charter flight.

“Laldenga, his family, three others, and I then moved to Islamabad for four years,” Zoramthanga recollected.

Zoramthanga and Laldenga travelled under fictitious names.

“Around that time, we made contact with the Indian government secretly (behind Pakistan’s back) through Kabul. We landed in Delhi in January 1976 for talks. These ‘talks’ lasted for 10 years and culminated in the accord,” he said.

Adventures of a rebel leader

In 1979, Morarji Desai, then Prime Minister, told the MNF leaders to hand over arms to which the latter insisted on negotiation first.

The Indian government responded by detaining the MNF leaders at the IB headquarters in New Delhi.

“But we devised an audacious escape route and managed to board a flight to Calcutta (now Kolkata). We then flew to Silchar in Assam and boarded a jeep to reach Mizoram.”

Zoramthanga recollected, “I remember we walked for 27 days thereafter. Subsequently, I became the vice-president of MNF, as Laldenga was in Delhi. Laldenga was incarcerated in Tihar jail, but was finally released and allowed to go to London.”

Zoramthanga has been working on his memoirs where one can will find all the adventures of his insurgent days.

End of journey?

After an illustrious political career, the three-time chief minister appears to be contemplating retirement. In the wake of the humiliating poll debacle, where the MNF’s seat count plummeted from 28 to 10, Zoramthanga took moral responsibility. On Tuesday, he tendered his resignation as the president of the MNF party, a position he held for over three decades.

While the acceptance of Zoramthanga’s resignation remains uncertain at this point, the sentiment is not limited to non-MNF members; even insiders share the belief that under Zoramthanga’s leadership, the MNF might struggle to make a comeback.

Zoramthanga mirrored the fate of his arch-rival, Mizoram Congress president Lal Thanhawla, who experienced a humbling defeat in two seats during the 2018 elections when the Congress government was ousted by the MNF.

According to an MNF insider who did not wish to be named, “Zoramthanga should have opted not to contest the 2023 elections. Our party would have had a better chance at securing a second term had he chosen not to run.”

Nonetheless, it’s rare in Indian politics for a party leader, especially an incumbent chief minister or prime minister, to refrain from contesting elections.

According to Prof. Jangkhongam Doungel, a political science teacher at Mizoram University, while Zoramthanga not contesting the elections could have improved the MNF’s chances, such a decision is deemed next to impossible.

Eventually, Zoramthanga is likely to step down from the party’s helm, much like his Congress counterpart Lal Thanhawla did two years after facing electoral setbacks. Only time will reveal whether the Mizo National Front can stage a comeback in the absence of its influential leader.

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