Indian way of Secularism;Church-backed body has its own poll rules.

published on December 9, 2013
 ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ . That’s how Mizoram welcomes you. Painted big and bold across a giant Cross a few yards from the runway at state capital Aizwal’s Lengpui airport, the message seems ominous as you get familiar with the political nitty-gritty of this Christian-dominated state.

The election process has a sense of divine edict about it. The Church pushed the Election Commission to reschedule polling and counting dates to accommodate the Presbyterian Church’s fiveday Synod despite chief electoral officer Ashwani Kumar’s protests; counting was postponed by a day to December 9 because ‘Sunday is meant for prayers’. Not just that, the clergy also plays virtual election commission. The Church has issued a four-page list of do’s and don’ts for voters and candidates. Apart from the honesty and harmony bits, it says: “Refrain from voting for those who drink or have extra-marital sex.” With almost 70% of Mizoram following the Presbyterian Church, no party rubs them the wrong way.

Dr Robert Halliday, secretary of Mizoram Presbyterian Church, says: “Mizoram’s common people are pious, they’ll abide by any Church guideline. We can only urge them to lead a moral life. We don’t want to interfere with the election, rather we want to facilitate the process.”

Mizoram People’s Forum, a Church-sponsored watchdog formed in 2006, has signed a 27-point ‘MoU’ with major political parties, including the ruling Congress and BJP, to ensure a ‘free and fair’ election. Apart from curbs on lavish campaigning, the charter prohibits tall promises in manifesto , bans public meetings and protest rallies and tells parties not to organize vehicles to drop voters to polling booths. Hinting at Rahul and Sonia Gandhi’s visit later this month, MPF general secretary Lalramthanga said: “Rules won’t be relaxed for star campaigners of national parties. MPF will conduct the public meetings permitted by the Mizoram Pradesh Congress Committee.”

No party defies the diktats. If they do, the MPF would “invalid the party (sic),” says the MoU. “Constituencies here are small — 15,000 to 20,000 — each vote counts. No politician can afford to ignore the Church’s guidelines ,” says CEO Kumar.

Insisting the EC, MPF and the Church share a common goal — free and fair elections — Kumar explains: “In Mizoram, the Church is older than the government . The state was formed in 1986 after the Church facilitated the peace process. Until recently, they looked after the people’s education and healthcare. The Church isn’t just a religious institution here, it’s a way of life, the centre of social activities.”

While the EC’s lauded the MPF’s role, many question the religious body’s role in a democratic process.

“Elections should remain secular . The scenario in Mizoram is like that of 18th century Europe when religious doctrine got mixed up with political administration,” says Lallianchhunga, assistant professor of political science, Mizoram University. “Would similar orders issued by another religious body in another part of India be accepted by the politicians?” he asks. “Going by this logic, we shouldn’t have elections on Fridays and Tuesdays either because they are holy days for some religions.”

College-goer Nghaka believes MPF is a Frankenstein in the making . “What authority does it have to issue guidelines beyond those issued by the EC? We’re supposed to elect leaders, not saints. Some of the best leaders in world history – including Churchill and Kennedy, one a heavy drinker and another known for extra-marital affairs – would never have been able to contest elections in Mizoram.”

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