What is the significance of the verdicts in three Northeastern states? The BJP has stamped its footprint decisively across the region, taking a big stride towards assuming a genuine pan-Indian identity. The coming polls in MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan will, however, present a different set of challenges — fighting anti-incumbency, the BJP will be defending rather than attacking.
The first set of Assembly elections of 2018 has produced a clear and categorical pro-change vote. The BJP has registered a historic triumph in Tripura, ending two-and-a-half decades of Left Front rule. In Meghalaya, the ruling Congress has suffered a setback, and a clutch of parties led by Conrad Sangma’s NPP and including the BJP, will stake claim to forming the government. In Nagaland, the NDPP’s Neiphiu Rio who, along with pre-poll ally BJP, has 32 MLAs in the 60-member House, has staked claim; however, Chief Minister T R Zeliang of the NPF has refused to resign, and remains hopeful of being able to form the government, also with BJP support.
For BJP, a critical mission accomplished
The verdict also indicates a major shift in the nature and structure of the politics of these three states. Beyond doubt, the substantive story is the emergence of the BJP as the ruling party in Tripura, where it did not have a single seat in the last Assembly. The BJP’s performance in the three states, and in Tripura in particular, is significant for three reasons.
First, in the effort to assert a pan-Indian identity, it was critical for the BJP to register its footprint in the Northeast. This was an important focus of its attention, and the elections provided visible evidence of its “national presence”. Second, the Northeast outreach was key to the larger all-India narrative that the BJP is attempting to shape — which explains the time the party leadership has invested in the region from the time of the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign. Third, Tripura is the BJP’s first major success against the Left — a duel in which the BJP has pushed the Congress out of the race altogether. The BJP is now looking to usher in its golden period, as the party national president Amit Shah said, with victories in Odisha, West Bengal and Kerala.
In Tripura especially, a well of discontent
The Tripura verdict is a game changer on several counts. A party that had a limited presence in the state, storming to power by ending the quarter-century rule of an entrenched CPM, is no mean achievement. A deeper analysis of the results indicates why this happened.
The Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey in the state showed that a sizeable chunk of voters made up their minds only after the start of the campaign, and it is among this section that the BJP has done extremely well. The levels of discontent against the performance of the Tripura government and the Chief Minister were fairly high — close to a third of respondents were “fully dissatisfied”. Past surveys have shown that such high levels of discontent are a clear indicator that a government is on its way out.
Nearly seven out of 10 respondents in Tripura said they had not benefited from any development scheme of the government. In Nagaland, close to half of respondents in the Lokniti-CSDS pre-poll survey said they were dissatisfied with the government, and over a fourth said they were fully dissatisfied. In Meghalaya, the pre-poll survey showed over a third of respondents were dissatisfied with the performance of the government — this, possibly, explains the decrease in the number of seats for the ruling Congress. In all three states, development was among the most important issues, which substantively explains the pro-change vote.
The importance of the party rather than candidates in determining the verdict was manifest in Tripura, but was not that obvious in Meghalaya and Nagaland. More than half the respondents in Tripura categorically stated that when deciding who to vote for, the party was the critical factor. In Meghalaya and Nagaland, on the other hand, close to two-thirds of respondents gave priority to the candidate over the party.
It needs to be underscored that in Tripura, the BJP was successful in getting its message across to voters. In the Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey, an equal number of voters stated that BJP and CPM workers/supporters had come seeking their vote in door-to-door campaigns. The election also saw an equal divide in Tripura between those who called themselves Left Front supporters, and those who were clearly anti-Left.
Beyond the Northeast, ahead in 2018
What are the wider national and regional implications of the verdict? Even before the Left suffered this powerful setback, the Congress had been in retreat — conceding state after state to the BJP, either through electoral verdicts or after elected representatives changed party affiliations. For the BJP, the real challenge is from the state-based parties, with many of whom it has stitched local alliances.
The success the BJP has achieved in Northeast, especially in Tripura, will beyond doubt be a huge morale-booster for its cadres as they prepare for the coming electoral battles of this year, and the Lok Sabha elections scheduled for next year. The verdicts from the Northeast are unlikely to directly impact outcomes in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, as electoral politics in each of these states is driven by factors and forces specific to the state. But a review of the BJP’s successes since 2014 in state Assembly elections shows its best performances have come when it has been in the opposition, and the ruling party faces stiff anti-incumbency.
Karnataka will present a critical test — the Congress is making a strong bid to retain power, and has invested heavily in the leadership of Chief Minister Siddaramaiah; the BJP, on the other hand, is depending on an electoral campaign that is managed and monitored by its central leadership, and has very little space for the local leadership. After Tripura, the BJP has positioned its bid for power in Karnataka as a logical continuation of the successful Northeast campaign. For the Congress, Karnataka is not just about retaining power, but also to remain relevant at the national level.
Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh will, however, be a different electoral game. They will bring back the memories of Gujarat, where the BJP, fighting anti-incumbency, struggled to get the numbers to continue in power.
The findings described here are based on a post-poll survey conducted in Tripura and pre-poll surveys conducted in Meghalaya and Nagaland by Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). The post-poll survey in Tripura was carried out between February 19 and February 26 among 1,990 randomly selected voters spread across 19 Assembly constituencies. The survey in Meghalaya took place between February 21 and February 26 among 1,069 voters in 13 Assembly constituencies. The survey in Nagaland was conducted between February 17 and February 24 among 833 voters in 11 Assembly constituencies. Tripura voted on February 18; Nagaland and Meghalaya on February 27.
A multistage random sampling design was adopted for all three surveys. The Assembly constituencies where the survey was conducted were randomly selected using the probability-proportional-to-size method, i.e., adjusting the probability of choosing a particular constituency according to the size of its electorate. In the second stage, four polling stations within each of the sampled Assembly segments were selected using the systematic random sampling technique. The third and final stage involved the selection of respondents from the most updated electoral rolls. This was also done using the systematic sampling method.
Before going to the field for the survey, field investigators were imparted training on the survey method and on interviewing techniques. The field investigators conducted face-to-face interviews of the respondents in the local language, and asked them a set of standardised questions. The duration of each interview was about 35-40 minutes. Across the three states, there were some locations where the non-availability of sampled respondents, or difficulty in finding households, necessitated replacements or substitutions.
In order to be representative of the population profile, the achieved raw sample in each state was weighted by gender, locality, religion, and caste group based on Census 2011. It was also weighted by the actual vote shares secured by the major parties. The purpose of the surveys was not just to try to understand voting behaviour, but more importantly, also to understand the reasons why voters chose the parties and the candidates they did. Prof Sanjay Kumar of CSDS directed all three surveys. The data were analysed by Himanshu Bhattacharya and Shreyas Sardesai.