Here, the entire election process has a sense of divine edict about it. Not only does the Church have a say in polling and counting dates — the upcoming assembly election was rescheduled to accommodate the Presbyterian Church's five-day Synod despite chief electoral officer Ashwani Kumar's protests, and counting postponed by a day to November 9 because "Sunday is meant for prayers" — the clergy also plays a virtual election commission.
The Church has issued a four-page list of dos and don'ts for both voters and candidates. Apart from the usual honesty and harmony bits, it says, "You should refrain from voting for those who drink or have extramarital sex." With almost 70 per cent of Mizoram following the Presbyterian Church, no party wants to rub them the wrong way.
Dr Robert S Halliday, secretary of the Mizoram Presbyterian Church, said, "The common people of Mizoram are a pious lot and they will abide by any guideline issued by the Church. We can only urge them to lead a moral life. We do not want to interfere with the election, rather we want to facilitate the process."
Meanwhile, Mizoram People's Forum, a Church-sponsored watchdog formed in 2006, has signed a 27-point 'MoU' with all major political parties, including the ruling Congress and BJP, to ensure a 'free and fair' election. Apart from strict curbs on lavish campaigning, the charter also prohibits tall promises in manifestoes, bans public meetings and protest rallies, and tells parties not to organize vehicles to drop voters to polling booths.
With the Church wielding influence on the nearly 90 per cent Christians, no party defies the diktats. If they do, MPF would "invalidate the party," says the 'MoU'. Hinting at the impending visit of Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi later this month, MPF general secretary Lalramthanga said, "The rules will not be relaxed for star campaigners of national parties. MPF will conduct their public meetings that have been permitted by the Mizoram Pradesh Congress Committee."
Insisting that the EC, MPF and the Church share a common goal — a free and fair election — CEO Kumar explained the phenomenon: "In Mizoram, the Church is far older than the government. The state was formed in 1986 after the Church facilitated the peace process. Until recently, they were the ones looking after the education and healthcare of the people. The Church is not just a religious institution here, it is a way of life and the centre of all social activities."
So why do parties give in to the Church's demands. "While the realpolitik is the same across the country, unlike most parts of mainland India, constituencies here are small — about 15,000 to 20,000 people — and each vote counts. No politician can afford to ignore the Church's guidelines," says Kumar.
He believes the Church would have risen in stature if it had not forced a change of polling and counting dates.
While MPF has been honoured and lauded by the Election Commission of India for its efforts, there are many who question the role a religious body plays in a democratic process.
"Elections should be secular. The scenario in Mizoram is like that of 18th century Europe when religious doctrine got mixed up with political administration and what happened is history," said Lallianchhunga, assistant professor at Mizoram University's department of political science. "Would similar orders issued by another religious body in another part of India be accepted by the politicians?" he asked. "Going by this logic, we shouldn't have elections on Fridays and Tuesdays either because they are holy days for some religions."
Another reason parties toe the Church's line, said Lallianchhunga, is the absence of significant political issues in Mizoram. With no militancy, negligible poverty, a literacy rate second only to Kerala and a crime rate comparable to Scandinavia, politicians do not have a proper plank to stand on. "The only platform left for them is morality. The politicians may say they have nothing to do with the Church or MPF, but, in truth, it is a symbiotic relationship. Each feeds on the other for power over people," he says.
College student Nghaka believes MPF is a Frankenstein in the making. "What authority does it have to issue guidelines above and beyond those issued by the EC. The group is just seven years old and it is going to get far more powerful with time," he said. "We are supposed electing leaders, not saints. And some of the best leaders in world history — including Churchill and Kennedy, one a heavy drinker and another known for extramarital affairs — would never have been able to contest elections in Mizoram."