The Bharatiya Janata Party was re-elected with a short majority of 32 seats in Tripura’s 60-member assembly election, the results of which were declared on March 2. The party’s ally, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, won only one of the six seats it contested.

In 2018, the BJP had ended the 20-year rule of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Tripura, wiping the Congress from the electoral map. This year, the novelty comes from the performance of the Tipra Motha Party, led by former royal Pradyot Kishore Manikya Debbarma.

The Tipra Motha Party won 13 seats in its first contest, which places it at the level of the Congress-CPI(M) alliance that failed to counter the incumbent BJP.

The BJP lost nearly 4% of the vote share, at 39%, but remains far ahead of its opponents. The combined vote share of Congress and the CPI(M) is 33%. The Tipra Motha Party secured one-fifth of all votes polled, at 20%. The Trinamool Congress, which contested 24 seats and invested massively in this election, failed to win even 1% of the total vote share.

With the exception of Congress, which gained three seats after having drawn blank in 2018, all established parties have lost some seats. With 11 seats, the CPI(M) registered its poorest performance since 1972.

Logically, the BJP stands ahead of its competitors in terms of strike rate. This year, the BJP converted nearly 60% of its candidates into legislators, against 70% in 2018. The strike rate of the three other parties stands far behind, a counter performance compounded by the fact that they also contested fewer seats than the BJP.

The geography of the results points towards a few clusters. The CPI(M) essentially retained some of the seats it had kept in 2018 but failed to regain any of the considerable ground it had lost.

The Tipra Motha Party essentially won the seats that were held by BJP’s partner, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura. This formation, led by Prem Kumar Reang, had served as a gateway for the BJP into Tripura politics. The BJP embraced its partner’s assertive identity politics and positioned itself as the champion of the groups that the communists had opposed or politically marginalised over the previous two decades.

As the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura collapsed, the Tipra Motha Party emerged in its stead, but this time in opposition against both the communists and the BJP. But since it was competitive in seats previously held by the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, it did not pose that much of the threat to the BJP.

In fact, looking at the parties’ vote share performance in the seats they contested, it appears that they all did quite well. The BJP’s average vote share in the 55 seats it contested is 42.4%. The Congress follows it with a nearly 40% of vote share obtained in the 13 seats it contested.

The Congress, in fact, did better than CPI(M), whose average vote share in the 43 seats it contested is 34.5%. This shows that the opposition has not been wiped out in Tripura. Far from it, it has become stronger, despite their poor showing in terms of seats.

The BJP’s vote share is distributed with higher concentrations in the Western and Eastern parts of the state.

The BJP lost vote share in 35 seats. In Charilam and Karamchhara, incumbent BJP legislators Jishnu Dev Varma lost 54% of the votes and Braja Lal Tripura 30% of the votes obtained in 2018. In Agartala, the BJP lost 16% of the votes if got five years ago.

In total, the BJP lost more than 10% of the vote share in 15 seats, which shows that there was some anti-incumbency at play in this election. It did, however, increase its vote share in 25 seats, albeit modestly (the range is from 0.8 to 7.1%), which indicate that anti-incumbency did not play out uniformly across the territory.

Judging by the map, one could hypothesise that the BJP lost more ground in areas where tribal identity politics is more salient, which is also where the Tipra Motha Party did well.

The vote share performance of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is also where the BJP did well, and where no other significant party cut into its votes. The Congress-CPM alliance did not perform but one can think that both parties would have been worse off if they had not contested together.

The Tipra Motha Party contested 42 seats but performed in only half of them. Of the 13 seats it got, eight were won with a vote share greater than 50%. In Takarjalai, Biswajit Kalai won with 86.7% of the votes. This shows that this new formation is an important local force rather than a new state-wide actor.

Overall, the BJP retained 24 of the 36 seats it had won in 2018. The CPI(M), on the other hand, retained only six. This means that exactly half of all seats changed hands in this election.

Unsurprisingly, 13 of the seats that changed hands were won by newcomer Tipra Motha Party. The BJP won eight new seats, Congress three and CPI(M) five. The Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura lost all the seats it had won in 2018 and won one new seat in 2023, in Jolaibari.

As noted previously, some Tipra Motha Party candidates won with huge margins. Twenty-six seats saw a close contest (with a victory margin inferior to 5%). The BJP won 13 of them, against nine for the CPI(M), two for the Tipra Motha Party and one each for the Congress and the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura.

This is a significant number of close contests. The BJP can count itself lucky considering the short majority that it has secured. This does not diminish the merit of the BJP, but shows that this election was highly competitive.

High participation

The voter turnout was high in 2023, as it has been in Tripura since the 1980s. Eight-eight per cent of registered voters exercised their right, a slightly lower number than in the previous three elections, which corresponds to the period when women started outvoting men in that state (this will not be clear for 2023 for some time, until the Election Commission releases its final statistical report).

Participation is widely distributed, with a marked difference in North Tripura. It is also slightly lower in the central tribal areas.

Despite the coming of a new party, the overall number of candidates has not increased in 2023. A total of 259 individuals contested, against 297 five years ago. The share of candidates losing their deposit has also decreased from 60% to 47%.

There were 15 parties contesting this year, against 16 in 2018. The fragmentation of the votes between multiple players enabled five parties to gain representation against three earlier.

Counting the Tipra Motha Party as a major party, the cumulative vote share of major parties continues to grow, at 92%.

How incumbents performed

Forty sitting legislators contested again and 24 of them won. This is the lowest number of re-running incumbents in Tripura since 1977. Twenty-six of them were from the BJP, which means that 10 BJP MLAs were replaced by new candidates. Only seven sitting legislators of the CPI(M) contested again.

Re-running incumbents did fairly well. 73% of BJP’s 24 re-running incumbents won, against 43% of CPM’s (that is to say three out of seven).

Turncoats in the fray

There have always few turncoats in Tripura politics. Historically, the Congress was always more amenable to accommodate them. The CPI(M), on the other hand, had stronger ideological ties with its cadre. Since 1983, it has fielded only one turncoat candidate, Ramu Das, from Pratapgarh, who had contested earlier on a Communist Party of India ticket.

Things changed in 2018, when 17 turncoats contested the election. Twelve of them were fielded by the BJP, which often uses poaching to enter new territories. All of them were from the Congress and ten of them won that year. Of these ten successful turncoats, only seven contested again in 2023 and five of them won.

The Tipra Motha Party fielded only two turncoat candidates, who both won – Brishakety, from Simna, who came from the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura and Ashis Das, from Kamalasagar, who left the BJP.

In total, 36 of the 60 members of the new assembly are first-time legislators, a number nearly as high as in 2018 when the BJP had swept the election.

The recent upheavals in Tripura politics have meant that the state’s political class has been profoundly reshuffled. In the assembly of 60, only seven members have served more than two terms. The assembly’s veteran is a seven-term BJP legislator Surajit Datta from Ramnagar. He is followed by Sudip Roy Barman, six-term Congress legislator from Agartala.

Of these seven remaining experienced politicians, only one is from the CPI(M): Shyamal Chakraborty, from Sonamura. This gives a measure of the decline of the communists, who could not get any of their previous MLAs elected.

More women contested

Another important aspect of political change in Tripura is the rising number of women representatives. Nine women have been elected in 2023, the highest number so far in Tripura. Six of them were first-time contestants, the other three already had political experience.

For instance, the new Mandaibazar MLA, Swapna Debbarma, has been associated with Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura since 1999. This is the first time she was given the opportunity to run, on a Tipra Motha Party ticket. She belongs to the same community as Tipra Motha Party leader Pradyot Debbarma.

In Kamalasagar, successful BJP candidate Antara Sarkar Deb was a Sabhadhipati Councillor at the Paschim Tripura Zilla Parishad. Other first-time legislators are Mina Rani Sarkar (BJP), from Badharghat, Swapna Majumder (BJP) from Rajnagar, Nandita Debbarma (Tipra Motha Party) from Raima Valley, and Swapna Das Paul (BJP) from Surma.

Seven of the nine women elected won on a BJP ticket. Santana Chakma in Pencharthal and Kalyani Roy in Teliamura were both incumbents who ran again. Chakma is also an incumbent minister, who had held the portfolios of Social Welfare and Social Education and Animal Resource Development in the previous government.

It is encouraging that new parties (or newly emerging parties) are taking the lead in nominating (a few) more women candidates. True to their habits, the Congress and CPI(M) barely nominated any.

Key observations

The BJP succeeded in retaining its majority despite the collapse of its alliance partner. The alliance lost some ground but the fragmentation of the opposition stage, with the rise of a new player, helped the BJP keep its majority intact.

The numbers presented here do not explain the political dynamics at work. They merely give insights on the high degree of competitiveness in this election. Major shifts have occurred in Tripura these past few years. This election shows that the BJP’s 2018 performance was not purely circumstantial and that the party is here to stay as a major force.

But like in other states across the North East, regional parties, asserting regional, tribal identities, are also emerging as strong political actors. They, too, are redefining the political lines of their respective states and are contributing to make elections competitive and meaningful.

Gilles Verniers, Srishti Gupta, Poulomi Ghosh, Ananay Agarwal and Puneet Arya are with the Trivedi Centre for Political Data. Shoaib Mirza contributed to the data. Views are personal.

Also read: How a split in Opposition votes helped BJP cling on to power in Tripura