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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 November, 2003, 15:51 GMT
Mizoram's model elections

By Subir Bhaumik
BBC correspondent in Mizoram

Young Mizo Congress supporters at election rally in Aizawl, Mizoram capital
Mizos are determined there will be no slide back to war
India's tiny state of Mizoram votes on Thursday to elect a new leader.

Mizoram is the only state in India's troubled north-east where a political settlement with Delhi has held.

Chief Minister Zoramthanga is hoping to return to power 17 years after he traded his battle fatigues for the civilian dress of a politician.

The former guerrilla commander is helping Delhi negotiate with half a dozen separatist groups in the north-east.

Bringing peace

In June 1986, Zoramthanga walked out of a large rebel base in the dense jungles on India's north-eastern borders with Bangladesh and marched towards Mizoram.

Traditional bamboo dance
Bamboo dance: Peaceful scenes after years of war
He was joined by hundreds of guerrillas who had followed him for 20 years during a bloody separatist campaign against Indian forces.

As church bells rang and Mizos prayed for peace, Zoramthanga began his new life as an Indian politician.

Now he wants to return to office for a second successive term.

"Regardless of whether I win or not, I will help Prime Minister Vajpayee to bring peace to north-east India," Zoramthanga said in a BBC interview.

"I have opened parleys with several guerrilla groups in our region and we will take the peace process forward."

Analysts say his Mizo National Front (MNF) is still the front-runner though it may not be easy for it to secure a clear majority in the 40-member state assembly.

Mizo editor David Thangliana says smaller regional parties like the Mizoram People's Conference and its ally, the Zoram Nationalist Party, may become a decisive factor if they win four to five seats.

Don't write us off, we are a force to reckon with in Mizoram
Congress leader Lalthanhawla
The Congress is still not seen as a party on a comeback trail but its local chief, Lalthanhawla, says party chief Sonia Gandhi's whirlwind tour of Mizoram will make a difference.

"Don't write us off, we are a force to reckon with in Mizoram," Lalthanhawla said.

The former chief minister stepped down from power in 1986 to make way for an interim administration that included the MNF - one of the pre-conditions its leaders set for signing the peace accord.

"He sacrificed his chair for peace and the Mizos have not forgotten it," says a senior Congress leader, Pranab Mukherjee.

Quiet campaigns

In Mizoram's tiny constituencies, a few hundred votes usually make the difference between defeat and victory and poll-time violence is rare.

Mizoram is the easiest election to conduct anywhere in India
Election Commissioner JM Lyngdoh
The Young Mizo Association, with nearly 40,000 members in the state, takes the initiative to organise public debates in each constituency where candidates argue their case.

There are no noisy microphones, no posters and no big processions. There is also no mud-slinging. Candidates try to win support by advocating what they wish to do.

Door-to-door campaigning is what most candidates resort to once the big public debate in the constituency is over.

"That makes Mizoram elections less of a party affair. Victory or defeat has a lot to do with candidates," says Mizo political analyst Lalmawia.

But that also makes elections in Mizoram - once one of the most troubled states in India - a peaceful affair.

"Mizoram is the easiest election to conduct anywhere in India," says India's chief election commissioner James Michael Lyngdoh, who comes from the neighbouring state of Meghalaya.

New challenges

Mizos value the tranquillity they enjoy in a troubled region and are determined to maintain it, but the heroes of the peace process have new challenges to contend with.

Chief Minister Zoramthanga
Rebel-turned-politician Zoramthanga seeks second term
Though helping Delhi to start dialogues with other separatists, Zoramthanga has failed to end the Reang armed rebellion in his own state.

The Reangs want an autonomous council for themselves in western Mizoram along the lines of the three councils that exist in the state's southern fringes for the Chakmas, Lai and Mara tribes.

More than 30,000 Reang refugees have fled to the neighbouring state of Tripura.

Minority tribes like the Reangs and the Chakmas often complain of persecution by Mizos.

Chins from Burma, once seen as ethnic cousins of the Mizos, have also recently been driven out of the state in their thousands.

So beneath the apparent calm, there are ripples in Mizoram.

But Chief Minister Zoramthanga says peace will hold in Mizoram regardless of who wins the elections.

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