Elections in Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland were a litmus test for the BJP ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha election. The saffron party succeeded in maintaining its hold on all three—but its position is hardly as dominant as the headlines suggest.
Editor’s note: This is a short edition of the Big Story since this has been an exceptionally busy news day. See our mini-explainers in Headlines That Matter on the big Supreme Court rulings on the Election Commission and Adani—plus a verdict in the Hathras case.
Researched by: Rachel John & Nirmal Bhansali
The big picture
These are the first assembly elections of 2023—which promises to be busy and bitterly contested. Mizoram, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Telangana will go to polls later this year. Each of these is viewed as a dress rehearsal for the big show—the Lok Sabha elections in 2024.
The overall result: The BJP—with its allies will retain power in all three states. Once again, the most notable result is the decimation of the Congress party. The only consolation: it now has four MLAs in Meghalaya—where its presence had fallen to zero due to defections. But party chief Mallikarjun Kharge dismissed the dismal performance, saying: “It is a ‘small states’ election. Usually, northeast parties, they go with the central government trend.” Hmm, we wonder what he’ll say if the ‘big state’ elections in 2023 also go with the “central government trend.”
Nagaland: Victory for the alliance
The result: The BJP’s alliance with the National Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) proved to be successful. They scored a decisive majority of 37 seats in the 60-seat assembly. NDPP increased its tally by eight seats—while BJP held steady with 12. Congress did not win a single seat… again! The numbers of the once dominant Naga People’s Front (NPF) fell precipitously from 26 to just two! That 21 NPF MLAs defected to the NDPP ahead of the polls didn’t exactly help.
The significance: The rising fortunes of the NDPP—and its chief Neiphiu Rio—is remarkable. He left the ruling NPF party just weeks before the 2018 election to form his own party—and hitch his fortunes to the BJP—which dumped NPF in his favour. And the alliance has proved to be an unbeatable combination.
Point to note: BJP’s ongoing success in a state where 90% of the residents are Christian—and have little interest in its Hindutva ideology—reflects its astonishing ability to craft winning coalitions. But the result isn’t a stirring endorsement of the party or its ideology. It does, however, point to the great value of ruling the roost in Delhi:
One of the reasons NPF failed to do well is because it has no ties with the ruling party at the Centre as underneath it all, it’s all about financial security, that is getting a share of the dole-outs from Delhi.
The very good news: Nagaland elected its first women MLAs—NDPP’s Hekani Jakhalu and Salhoutuonuo Kruse.
Meghalaya: A split verdict
The result: No single party scored a majority—but the National People’s Party (NPP) led by CM Conrad Sangma is the single largest party with 26 seats. That’s seven more than in 2018—despite the barrage of corruption allegations against Sangma. He will form the government in alliance with the United Democratic Party (11 seats) and the BJP (2 seats). Congress managed to win only five seats.
The significance: The result is a humiliating defeat for the Congress. In the last election, it was the single largest party with 21 seats. But Sangma managed to cobble together a ruling coalition with the UDP and the BJP. Over the past five years, however, all the Congress MLAs defected—bringing its pre-poll strength down to zero:
After three of its 21 MLAs passed away and another joined the NPP, the remaining 17 MLAs deserted the party. It started in November 2021 when 12 of them, led by former chief minister Mukul Sangma, “merged” with the TMC, making the Mamata Banerjee-led party the principal Opposition in the state almost overnight.
And yet the Trinamool Congress only managed five seats in this election—remaining the “Bengali party” in the eyes of voters.
Point to note: Meghalaya almost inevitably throws up a fractured result due to linguistic differences. Of the three regions, Khasi and Jaintia share a similar language—unlike the third, Garo. So the party that is popular on one side of that divide is unlikely to score votes with the other. And that’s why coalition governments are the norm.
Tripura: BJP sits pretty
The result: The BJP won 32 seats—while its ally IPFT (Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura) managed one. That’s a 11-seat drop from 2018 but still a simple majority in the 60-member assembly. The big loser: the CPI(M) whose vote share fell from 42% in 2018 to 24.6%—lowering its seat count from 16 to 11. Also losing big: Trinamool which did not win even one of the 28 seats it contested.
The significance: Even though the BJP scored fewer seats, it broke new territory in the state—winning over traditionally Left-leaning districts. It also won six of the 20 tribal seats—despite facing stiff opposition from Pradyot Manikya—a royal family scion and leader of the recently formed Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance (TIPRA) Motha. But the rise of Motha proved to be a boon for the BJP:
For years, the tribal seats had gone with the Left Front — in fact, at one point, it was said ‘the Left Front starts counting from 21’, so sure were they of winning these seats. (But) loyalties are now divided with the Motha and the biggest gainer has been the BJP. That is why the Left-Congress alliance had tried very hard till the last minute to forge a coalition with the Motha.
Point to note: While the CPI(M) lost ground, its Congress ally saw its tally jump from zero to three. All of which confirms the opposition parties’ fear that any partnership with the Congress profits the grand old party—but at the expense of its own allies.
The bottomline: This is just the first round of many battles to come—all in preparation for the maha-yudh in 2024. In the words of the immortal Bette Davis, “Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night."
The more thoughtful analysis will likely be published over the weekend. For now, The Hindu’s coverage is the best of the lot: the overview of the results, analysis of the Left’s losses in Tripura and what’s at stake for the BJP. The Print’s analysis of the BJP’s victories in tribal seats is worth a read. Indian Express looks at whether the BJP will appoint a woman CM in Tripura. Scroll has a good analysis of the BJP’s win in Nagaland. For more on the rise of Manikya in Tripura, read The Telegraph and Outlook.