Voters sitting in benches while waiting for their turn at a polling booth in Mizoram during elections last year

With elections around the corner, some tour operators in Gujarat have come up with a unique form of tourism, something that they are calling ‘election tourism’. In simple terms, tourists, especially from foreign shores who wish to ‘experience’ the poll process in the world’s largest democracy, will now get a chance to be a part of political rallies and public meetings, among other poll-related events.

So far, so good. But to add to the diversity that India is known for, I suggest tour operators should also add Northeast to their itineraries.

Where else would you see voters sitting on benches while queueing up and waiting for their turn at polling stations? We’re talking about Mizoram here, and the far Northeastern state bordering Bangladesh and Myanmar has shown time and time again how the democratic exercise is conducted in a manner that befits an honourable mention, to say the least.

By now, we all know how the church calls the shots during elections in Mizoram. In fact, the church is considered as much a religious institution as it becomes a watchdog during poll season in the state.

When election was held for the first time in the newly formed Union Territory of Mizoram in 1972, church leaders appealed politicians and candidates to ensure a clean, free and fair election. Since then, issuing election-related statements has become a regular affair for the church in Mizoram.

In fact, many consider the efforts of the church to have brought the Centre and the Mizo National Front, now the ruling party in the state, to the negotiating tables, ultimately leading to the Peace Accord in 1986.

More than an exercise to elect their representatives to the state assembly or Parliament, Northeast people see elections as a harbinger of hope

Talking about peace, there was a picture that did the rounds during assembly elections in Mizoram last year. In the image, a policeman is seen playing with the kids while the voters lined up to cast their ballots at, what was widely circulated then, a polling booth in Mizoram. Although the veracity of the picture could not be ascertained, social media users found solace — and in the case of people from Mizoram, pride — in the fact that all hope is not lost as yet.

More than an exercise to elect their representatives to the state assembly or Parliament, Northeast people see elections as a harbinger of hope. As much as they would like to hate the system, they believe that it is the only source that will bring them employment or livelihood. For a region that has remained in the shadows of ethnic rivalry, militancy and corruption, a government job or the government itself becomes the only ray of hope.

Hence, an involvement in the democratic process becomes necessary for the natives of Northeast that otherwise remains cut off from the ‘mainland’ and the many ‘economic opportunities’ that it offers.

Three Northeast states went to polls last year. What was striking about it was the fact that all of them recorded high voter turnout. While Tripura saw a turnout of 89%, Manipur registered 85%. The figure was 75% in Nagaland. The figures are nothing but impressive. Just to put it in context, the average voter turnout during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections across all the nine phases was just 66%.

According to The Hindu newspaper, in a data analysis of voter turnout during elections since 1961, it found that there had been 41 times when the figure was above 80% since the first time elections were held in the country. Of the 41 instances, 30 were from the Northeast.

Participation of candidates in the poll process is equally dramatic. Last year, when Nagaland went to elections, it came up with a unique US-style incentive to bring leaders from different parties to come together on one platform and address the crowds on policies across the state.

The initiative, called ‘Common Platform’, had audiences that comprised voters coming from various towns and villages. These platforms were organised out of crowdsourced money and entirely apolitical.

In Manipur, before a candidate or political leader begins his or her speech during an election campaign, people of the locality gather to host a unique ‘flag-hoisting’ ceremony. Locals follow this traditional practice called ‘Athenpot Thinba’ wherein they offer ‘gifts’ such as sweets, fruits or vegetables before they listen to their leaders’ speeches.

These ‘gifts’ are put in bamboo buckets and steel plates and offered near a bamboo shaft that normally has a party flag attached to it. The leaders then hoist the flag, under which is kept a ‘tulsi’ plant. Prayers follow.

The ceremony is secular in nature — almost everyone from any community, be it Hindu, Muslim or Christian, are seen gifting and praying for their communities. According to reports, the tradition dates back to the time when Manipur was ruled by kings. People belonging to the Meitei community, the prominent ethnic group of the state, used to give a fair share of their agricultural produce to their rulers as a token of respect. The practice is followed ever since.

Meanwhile, in Mizoram, a church body is contemplating to hold a mass prayer session in the first week of April for the peaceful conduct of both the Lok Sabha polls and assembly by-election. Mizoram Kohhran Hruaitute Committee (MKHC), a conglomerate of 16 churches in the state, has appealed all churches across the state to hold mass prayers on April 5 or 6.

The church body has appealed members to vote for a candidate, who will give priority to safety of the people of the state.

Well, in the run-up to the polls across the country, candidates may definitely need a prayer or two to raise their chances of winning. But they also need voters’ blessings. And that can come only when they bring a change and put their policies into action.

(The author is the executive editor of EastMojo. Views expressed are his own)

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