The BJP has pulled a remarkable performance in Tripura, not only by matching the Communist Party of India (Marxist)‘s vote share but also by obtaining a single majority of seats for the first time, without having any political antecedent worth mentioning in that north-eastern state.

What explains the variation in seat share between the two parties that basically have the same vote share? Did the CPI(M) slump uniformly across the state or did it maintain some of its historic strongholds?

A stable turnout

Turnout has been very high in Tripura for years, and increased significantly since 2008 because of the Election Commission’s efforts at improving voter registration across the country. The overall recent growth of participation has been largely driven by women, who outvote men in Tripura elections since 2008.

Great political ruptures often happen in the context of decreased participation – when the supporters of parties who have been in power for long manifest their discontent by staying at home on polling day. Mayawati in 2007 won a single majority of seats with the lowest turnout recorded in Uttar Pradesh in 27 years (46% against 54% in the previous election), as her opponents’ core support bases were relatively demobilised. Indira Gandhi made her come back in 1980 also in a context of decreased participation.

This was not the case in these elections, as the overall turnout has remained perfectly stable. This indicates that the BJP performance is the result of a massive upsurge of popular support, and not the by-product of the demobilisation of some segment of the electorate.

The constituency-wise turnout map reveals that turnout decreased slightly in areas where the CPI(M) retained seats (in the West and in the extreme North of the map).

The shrinking performance of small parties

The total number of parties contesting elections in Tripura keeps increasing over time, while the total number of parties obtaining representation diminishes. This basically mean that the growing fragmentation does not affect the state’s main parties – CPI(M) and Congress, and now BJP instead of Congress.

The party system in Tripura has always been bipolar. The Congress won the first election in 1967 and then lost to the Left, who has been ahead in terms of vote share consistently since 1972. In fact, the aggregate vote share of both major parties has kept increasing over time. In 2018, both CPI(M) and BJP totalled 85.7% of the total vote share.

Small players are reduced to fighting for crumbs, which explains why they generally do not pose any threat to major parties.

The overall number of candidates also remain quite stable, contrary to most Indian states. On average, less than five candidates contest in each seat.

The Left pushed to the margins

The following map gives an idea of the extent of the rout of the Left. The CPI(M) lost 33 seats out of the 46 it previously held. Its presence is reduced to the two geographical extremities of the state – in the Northern-most districts and alongside the Western border with Bangladesh, in the Shipahijala and the South Tripura districts.

The overall performance of the BJP is impressive since it goes from no seat to 35.

The Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura or IPFT is the other surprise of these elections, winning 8 seats from nil in their second participation in a Tripura election.

The Congress’ vanishing act

This election is also unprecedented with regard to the total collapse of the Congress. Its vote share had historically been stable since 1988, at an average of 35%. In 2018, it fell to less than 2%, a humiliating debacle that has to be explained by more than the result of their unwillingness to put up a fight against both the Left and the BJP. Clearly, voters in the state have lost all hope in the Congress Party and whoever wished to oppose the Left transferred their vote to the BJP.

The rise of the BJP exceeds the decline of the Congress, as it gained five more percentage points than the Congress lost. This confirms the notion that the BJP succeeded in becoming the main opposition to the Left for a broad range of voters.

The Congress may justify its lack of engagement in this election as a mean to provide support to the Left against the BJP. The irony is that by doing so, they actually helped the BJP win. Had the Congress put up a fight, they might have retained some of their voters, arguably, which would have prevented the BJP from sweeping this election.

Instead, the BJP has converted 43% of vote share into nearly 60% of the seats, a smaller majority than those obtained by the CPI(M) since 1993.

The puzzle is how the BJP could convert the same vote share as the CPI(M) into so many more seats. For the same vote share, the BJP obtained more than twice the number of seats than the Left retained.

The geography of the results is particularly important to understand the outcome of this election.

A uniform decline of the Left

The Left lost vote share almost uniformly across the territory, confirming that its rejection cut across sub-region or local contexts. Barring the half dozen seats that it saved on the Western border, the CPI(M) lost vote share in practically every seat.

This explains how the BJP could be so competitive. Had the Left maintained a few strongholds or had its decline been more geographically localised, the outcome would have been very different.

The even distribution of losses of the CPI(M) also reveal that its poor performance cannot be explained by a simple aggregation of local factors. The explanation has to be sought at the state level.

The winners’ average vote share reveals, however, that this election was more competitive than it seems. Any candidate who won did so with an impressive vote share, on average superior to 50% of the votes for the three parties who secured representation. The distance between the CPI(M), the BJP and the IPFT is not significant, which means that each winner won quite decisively. This indicates a high degree of polarisation in these elections.

Victory margins were low in most seats, under 10% in 33 seats out of 59. The conventional bar for a close election is usually placed at less than 5% of difference between the winner and the runner up.

A comparison of the distribution of victory margins in 2013 and 2018 reveals however that there were more close elections in 2013 (23) than in 2018 (15). This further indicates that this election was highly polarised and that parties performed strongly wherever they won.

Another measure of competitiveness of parties – strike rates – indicate further the difference in performance between the Left and the BJP. The BJP won 70% of the seats it contested, against 29 for the CPI(M). The IPFT did even better, since it won 8 of the 9 seats it contested.

An assembly of newcomers

In most Indian states, there is a high turnover of elected representatives, be it in competitive multi-party states, such as Uttar Pradesh, or in stable bipolar states, dominated by a single party over time, like Gujarat. Under the Left regime, there was a great deal of stability and continuity. Under the CPI(M) rule, most sitting MLAs traditionally contested again and, given the dominant position of the party, got to be re-elected. The 43 sitting CP(M) MLAs who contested in 2018 had served on average more than three consecutive terms, which is remarkably stable.

The defeat of the Left is not only the defeat of a Chief Minister, but also the defeat of many longstanding politicians.

The eruption of the BJP on the stage obviously disrupted this local stability of Tripura politics.

In 2018, 75% of the seats changed hands, almost exclusively in the direction of the BJP. The BJP wrestled 25 seats out of the hands of the CPI(M) and won 9 of the 10 seats that Congress previously held. The CPI(M) retained 15 seats that it previously held, and could take only one seat from the Congress. In this election, to be fair, there was no new terrain that the Left could conquer. The space was open exclusively to the BJP.

In total, only one incumbent out of three got re-elected, notably due to the fairly large presence of turncoat candidates. In total, 27 candidates switched party affiliation before the election, mostly in direction of the BJP.

One strategy that the BJP has adopted in states where it does not have a strong historical presence is to cannibalise its immediate rivals by poaching candidates from their ranks. In 2018, the BJP has fielded eight incumbent MLAs, seven from Congress and one from CPI(M). All of them won. Four ex-Congress MLAs also ran on a BJP ticket. Two of them won. The BJP also fielded a former Congress candidate who had not yet won an election – Ratan Chakraborty, in Khayerpur. In total, the BJP fielded 14 turncoats, all of which but two won their seat. Most other BJP candidates were newcomers. Only six candidates out of 50 had previously contested on a BJP ticket.

By comparison, the CPI(M) fielded only one turncoat, Ramu Das, an incumbent Communist Party of India MLA from Pratapgarh, who lost.

As a result, 61% of the members of the new assembly are first-time MLAs, the highest it has been in many years.

NOTA does not matter

As in other North-Eastern state, None of The Above or NOTA fails to make any inroads, securing less than 1% of the votes. Beyond 2% or 3%, NOTA could eventually alter the outcome in a very close election. It has not been the case in Tripura, where most voters refuse to waste their vote for an option that still amounts to casting an invalid vote (NOTA votes are counted as invalid votes, as per ECI rules).

The declining presence of women

The BJP performance has not altered a long-term trend in Tripura elections, which is the stark under-representation of women in the assembly. It is a puzzling fact that the states that perform the most in terms of HDI, sex ratio, education of women, among other indicators, are precisely those states which send the least number of women in their state assembly. Tripura is no exception. Twenty-four women contested in this election but only three got elected. That is two women lesser than in 2013. Only Bijina Nath won a third consecutive term, on a CPI(M) ticket, in Bagbassa.

In conclusion, the BJP’s performance – remarkable in itself – was helped by a series of circumstantial factors that helped it convert a similar vote share than the left into twice as many seats. The first factor is the fact that the Left lost vote share uniformly across the territory. 6.4% of vote share lost across the entire territory made this election competitive for the BJP.

The second helping factor was the total collapse of the Congress, which hardly campaigned and helped the BJP to capture the opposition vote.

The fact that the Left did not collapse in this election reveal that it was more competitive than what the outcome suggests. Whoever won in this election did so with a majority of the votes, which indicates strong local political polarisation. There is furthermore little evidence of transfer of votes from CPI(M) supporters to the BJP.

These circumstantial explanations do not alter the achievement of the BJP – it succeeded to win this election out of sheer will and organisational power. The Tripura election reveals that the BJP has retained its ability to gain more terrain. It has been able to compensate for a context of economic turmoil, joblessness and reduced lustre of the prime minister by deploying impressive resources and organisation, something that should help the party to regain some of the confidence it lost after the Gujarat elections.

Tripura may be a speck on India’s political map but this victory bears great symbolic significance, for the reasons quoted above. The Congress cannot hope to threaten the BJP by selecting the fights it wants to pick with the BJP.

The Trivedi Centre for Political Data team is led by Gilles Verniers, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ashoka University and co-Director, TCPD. Basim-U-Nissa, Mohit Kumar, Ashish Ranjan and Sudesh Kumar have contributed to the data. Raw data available at http://lokdhaba.ashoka.edu.in