Changing alliances, a poor show by the Congress, the eruption of the Bharatiya Janata Party on the state’s stage and a lot of local volatility have led to a deep reconfiguration of the political landscape in Nagaland. As state Governor PB Acharya appointed Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party leader Neiphiu Rio as Nagaland’s next chief minister on Tuesday, and asked him to prove his government’s majority in the Assembly by March 16, constituency-level data analysis gives some insights on what happened in these elections.
A dipping turnout
Voter participation came down a bit in a state where it frequently touches 90%. As in the rest of the North East, women have been outvoting men since 2008.
The decrease in turnout is not geographically uniform. Participation remained very high in the seats where the BJP performed well. The traditional Naga People’s Front strongholds registered a lower turnout than in 2013. It particularly came down in the southern districts of Peren and Dimapur, and in state capital Kohima, where participation fell by 10 percentage points.
A stable number of political players
The number of parties represented in the Assembly remains the same (six). Half of the parties who contested the election obtained representation. The party system of Nagaland started fragmenting after the 1998 elections. Before 1998, four to five parties used to contest and get seats. That number more than doubled 2003 onwards.
The overall number of candidates (counting independents) has remained stable over time. This year however, the number of candidates who saved their deposit – by securing more than one sixth of the votes polled in their seat – was significantly higher than in previous elections – 46%, against 25% in 2013. This means that the votes were more equally distributed between a large number of candidates and/or parties, indicating a high level of constituency-level fragmentation.
A receding Naga People’s Front
The map of the results reveals that the Naga People’s Front has receded since 2013, but it has resisted rather well in the southern districts of the state, and in a cluster of seats in the northern districts of Mon and Longleng.
The BJP’s performance is concentrated along the state’s western border with Assam, which it won in 2016. The Nationalist Democratic People’s Party performed well in the interior of the state and around state capital Kohima. It won mostly in seats held before by the Naga People’s Front. Both the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party have disappeared from the map.
Most parties on the decline
In terms of vote share, most parties have lost ground in this election, with the exception of the BJP and its pre-electoral partner – a newcomer – the Nationalist Democratic People’s Party. The Congress has registered the largest loss, going from 25% of the votes to 2%. The Naga People’s Front lost nearly 8% of vote share. The Nationalist Congress Party has almost disappeared, going from 6% of the vote share to 1%.
The BJP is a net gainer, with a 12.6% increase in vote share. It has reached 14.4% of vote share, 3% more than its earlier best performance (11% in 2003).
Despite the slump of most major parties, the total vote share obtained by the main parties increased from 74% to 88% of the vote. This increase is essentially pulled by the BJP-Nationalist Democratic People’s Party alliance.
Independent candidates in Nagaland have on many occasions received a lot of votes. The state has the peculiarity of having voted in only independent candidates in its first election in 1964. In 1998, half of the state’s MLAs were independent candidates. That ratio has dropped since, as voters choose to opt more strategically for candidates backed by strong parties – strong locally, or at the state level.
No sub-regional party strongholds
Nagaland is a small territory in which parties contest each other in every corner of the state. As a result, there are no particular geographical or sub-regional strongholds.
The Naga People’s Front’s loss of vote share, for instance, is quite even across the state. The party does not retain any particular cluster of seats, which means that the explanation for its relatively poorer performance in 2018 has to be a general, all-state level rebuff, rather than a collection of local rejections.
Similarly. The Congress’s collapse is also evenly distributed, which is not surprising, given its amplitude. There are only three seats left where the party’s vote share exceeded 20%, in Pfutsero, Ghaspani-II and in Tapi.
The BJP’s performance is more locally marked, which is explained by the fact that being in an alliance, it did not contest every seat. The BJP crossed the 50% vote share bar in five seats, in Alongtaki, Tyui, Akuluto and Seyochung Sitimi. It even crossed the 60% bar in Dimapur-I.
The Nationalist Democratic People’s Party performed well across the state, with two clusters of seats in the North, and in the southern most districts, including Kohima. The Nationalist Democratic People’s Party rode on the strength of its alliance with the BJP as well as on the strength of many turncoat candidates who switched to this new formation before the elections.
A performing BJP-NDPP alliance
Since all parties do not contest in every seat, we need to look at their vote share performance in the seats where they contested. The Naga People’s Front scores the highest vote share, having contested in 57 seats. The BJP, which contested only 19 seats, scored an average of 40% of vote share.
The Nationalist Democratic People’s Party registered a similar performance as its partner, which shows that the alliance – and the vote transfers between both parties’ respective vote bases – worked very well. A pre-electoral coalition partner frequently under-performs and drags the alliance down, as the Congress did to the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh in 2017. It was not the case here.
In terms of seat share, the Naga People’s Front lost its previous majority (63.3% of the seats in 2013). The BJP-Nationalist Democratic People’s Party combine got the same cumulated seat share (46.56%) as the Naga People’s Front (45.55%).
A highly volatile election
Volatility refers to various measures of discontinuity in electoral politics. Stable party performance can hide a lot of variations at the constituency level. Every party wins some, loses some. Many seats change hands between two elections. Turncoat candidates can get re-elected under different party tickets over time. These measures are important since they give us an idea of how much churning takes place at the local level.
Seats were won with an average victory margin lower than 10%, which makes for a very competitive election. The distribution of victory margins across seats is also quite flat, which indicates that most seats were highly competitive. The winner scored more than 20% as victory margin in only seven seats scattered across the state.
That phenomenon was more pronounced in 2018 as compared to 2013 due to the BJP’s rise.
If we examine party-wise winners’ average vote share and party-wise victory margins, we see that while most individual candidates obtained a near majority of votes in their constituency (which is a strong performance), there is almost always a strong runner-up, particularly in the constituencies won by the BJP and the Nationalist Democratic People’s Party. This means that most seats saw a high level of voter polarisation.
There are, however, important variations behind those numbers. The BJP’s average victory margin is 8.3%. But half of its seats were won on extremely narrow margins (less than 5%). The Nationalist Democratic People’s Party scored an average victory margin of 9.7%, with four seats won in a very close election. The same goes for the Naga People’s Front, whose average victory margin of 10% conceals the fact that it won 12 of its 27 seats with narrow margins. The National People’s Party only won two seats, one with a 5% margin, and the other with a 25% margin. In total, 23 seats were won with small margins, which reveals once again that this was a very competitive election.
Bonus for incumbents
In most states, incumbent MLAs stand little chance to serve more than one term. If the party does not deprive them of the chance of running again, voters often reject those they have elected in the previous election. This is what is called individual anti-incumbency.
Individual anti-incumbency runs low in Nagaland, where frequently more than half of the incumbent MLAs get re-elected. The figures show however that once an MLA loses the election, they generally do not come back.
This year, only 34.5% of the MLAs are first-time legislators.
This picture does not really fit with the data on party performance, which reveals much variation. This is also attested by the high number of seats that change hands between two elections. In 2018, voters elected a candidate from a different party than in 2013 in 70% of the seats. This is a huge turnover and an indication that parties find it very hard to build stable local strongholds in Nagaland.
Nagaland is a peculiar case since parties tend to come and go frequently between elections. Over the years, many parties have been splitting and merging on a regular basis. Many parties have also disappeared after having fought one or two elections.
How do we explain the relative stability of the political class in Nagaland? Partly by the presence of many turncoats – candidates who switched party affiliation between two elections. On average, close to a quarter of candidates in any given election change party affiliation.
This year, the Congress saw massive desertion in its ranks. Twenty Congress candidates shifted to other parties (nine went to the Naga People’s Front, four to the Nationalist Democratic People’s Party and two to the BJP). Fifty-three candidates in all shifted their allegiance before the 2018 elections. Most of them came from the Congress (20) and the Naga People’s Front (21). Four candidates deserted the BJP to run under four different party affiliations.
Most turncoats went to the Naga People’s Front (11, including nine from the Congress alone). The Nationalist Democratic People’s Party fielded 18 turncoats, mostly from the Naga People’s Front (12). The BJP fielded nine turncoats, including three MLAs from the Nationalist Congress Party. No one turned to the Congress.
It is always hard to assess whether party appeal or candidate appeal predominates in the determination of voters’ electoral choices. In the case of Nagaland, we see a lot of party-level volatility and lesser volatility at the candidate level, which indicates that candidates do matter and that they are not simple standard-bearers for their party.
The performance of these turncoat candidates, however, is not great. In 2018, 40% of all turncoats won their seat, against 30.6% in 2013. Regardless of the fragmentation of the political space, turncoat performance does increase over time, at least in recent elections.
The irrelevance of NOTA
As in other North Eastern states, the None Of The Above option or NOTA finds no takers. The NOTA scores exceed 1% in only eight seats. It is rejected as an option everywhere else.
There are several reasons for this lack of appeal of the right to reject. The first, obvious, one is that few voters want to reject any candidate or party. Most voters want their vote to count and therefore are reluctant to waste it by considering the act of voting as an act of protest. Disgruntled voters – and there are a great many of them – would rather punish a candidate or a party by voting for someone else, rather than for no one at all.
Another reason is that voters also want their vote to be counted. In the current system, NOTA votes are treated as invalid votes. That means that they are not even included in the candidates and parties’ vote share calculation.
No country for women
Finally, the greatest continuity in Nagaland politics is the absence of women in the legislature. Since its first election in 1964, Nagaland has not sent a single woman to its legislature.
Only 21 women have contested elections in Nagaland since the creation of the state, half of them as independents. In 2018, there were only five women contestants out of 251 candidates (two were fielded by National People’s Party, one by the BJP and the Nationalist Democratic People’s Party, and one ran as an independent). The absolute unwillingness of parties to field women candidates blocks any chance for voters to express their eventual preference for women candidates.
The 2018 Nagaland election data reveals that it is possible to have great political churning while having stable trends at the candidate level. Like in Tripura, the Congress has disappeared from the stage, having been massively rejected by voters. It only survives through the six Congress turncoats who succeeded in winning their seats.
The BJP-Nationalist Democratic People’s Party alliance matched the performance of the incumbent Naga People’s Front government, both in terms of votes and seats. The strategy clearly paid off and the alliance succeeded in presenting itself as the main Opposition to the party in power.
There is a clear pattern between these three north eastern elections. All governments suffered from some amount of anti-incumbency, and the BJP succeeded either on its own, as in Tripura, or in an alliance, as in Nagaland. In Meghalaya, it succeeded in becoming the architect of a non-Congress alliance of regional parties, despite having won only two seats.
This is not the place to explain exactly how the BJP pulled that performance off. One can cite the strategy of a continuous ground presence that the BJP adopted very early on, its ability to mobilise a vast organisation of party workers, the back-up of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on the ground, and a discourse that effectively portrayed its opponents as outdated and lacking credibility.
In all three elections, the Congress greatly helped by letting the space open to BJP, by neglecting the North East between elections and by showing contempt to voters in the North East by not even trying to garner their votes. The collapse of the Congress in all three states created a space that the BJP could occupy.
Ironically, the BJP showed how real Opposition work is done, while having no prior strength in those states. The Congress will do well to take cue from it.
The Trivedi Centre for Political Election 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.