Aizawl, Mizoram, India., Nov. 26 - The all-powerful church in the tiny northeast Indian state of Mizoram has warned voters in upcoming elections to ignore candidates tainted by sexual misconduct, alcoholism, or drug abuse.
It is hard to escape the influence of the church in the mountainous state, wedged between Myanmar and Bangladesh, which went to the polls last Thursday to elect a 40-member legislature.
More than 95 percent of the 900,000 population are Christians, whose forebears were converted by British missionaries in the colonial era, and at election time the church takes on the role of a community watchdog.
The Presbyterian Synod, which represents 85 percent of Christians in Mizoram, has issued a set of election guidelines read out at churches and warned of "exemplary punishment" if it is violated by voters or political parties.
"We appeal to all voters against electing any candidate whose image is tainted by social ills like alcoholism and drug addiction, besides any sexual misconduct," said Synod Moderator Reverend Managchhuna Sailo.
"The model code of conduct for political parties and voters is aimed at reforming the system and having a free and fair poll," Sailo said.
Other guidelines include an appeal for low-key electioneering, refraining from "slander campaigns" and not using children in the election process.
"We have specifically asked candidates and political parties against making poll promises that cannot be fulfilled," Sailo added.
"Guidelines for candidates apart, we have issued rules to be followed by voters as well - no voters to accept money from candidates and anybody found guilty will face punishment," said another church leader, Vanlalruwia, who uses only one name.
Other churches in the state - which include the Catholic and Baptist churches - do not issue similar guidelines, but the Presbyterian church has done so during elections for the past 10 years and voters said they were likely to obey the orders.
"Everything from politics to the daily life of the people revolves around the church in Mizoram. Anybody trying to act smart and defy the church rulings faces the wrath and ire of the community," said M. Rosanga, a retired police official in Mizoram's state capital Aizawl.
"Everybody knows how powerful the church is, and we all appreciate the role played by the church in elections," added Aicchinga, a ruling Mizo National Front (MNF) candidate, who also uses just one name.
The battle for votes in Mizoram will be between the MNF, which won 21 seats in the last election in 1998, and India's main opposition party, the Congress, which had six seats, and two other regional parties.
Mizoram is the only one of India's seven northeastern states which is not facing some kind of insurgency.
The MNF had declared war on India in 1966, after a famine which separatists said was ignored by New Delhi.
But in 1986, the rebels surrendered en masse to Indian authorities, who responded by making Mizoram its own state after years as a part of Assam state and a territory ruled directly by New Delhi.
A former MNF rebel commander, Zoramthanga, is currently the state's chief minister.
The church in Mizoram normally does not back any party in the polls, but covertly supports politicians and parties which have a pro-Christian sentiment.
Observers said most of the political parties in Mizoram toe the Christian line, including the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which heads the federal government. It did not win any seats in 1998 but is hoping to get two this time.
Unlike in other states where the BJP has campaigned on Hindu issues such as the banning cow slaughter and conversions, party leaders who have come to campaign in Mizoram have avoided these questions.
Carefully drafted speeches, laced with pro-Christian overtones, have formed part of speeches by top BJP leaders, including party president M. Venkaiah Naidu.
"The BJP is not a threat to Christianity," said senior BJP leader and government minister C.P. Thakur in an election speech.