Tripura will go down in Indian history as the first state that witnessed a direct electoral contest between the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the premier party of the Left, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the new right-wing pole of Indian politics. And the BJP won.
These two parties, that are no fans of each other (to put it mildly), have never had the pleasure of a direct face-off. This is partly because the BJP is a relative newcomer in Indian politics and because of the way Indian politics is arranged across its 29 states, with a mélange of class, caste, region, money and religion all playing a role in election outcomes.
Some people on the Left I spoke to before the Tripura elections saw it coming, but were predictably loathe to conceding defeat.
“It’s going to very close,” was their way of saying: “It’s curtains, comrade.”
But few reporters called the election correctly. Pollsters were more accurate, though, two of them correctly predicting a BJP victory.
One reason journalists and pollsters get it wrong sometimes could be that in certain settings, voters lie—this is a phenomenon that American sociologist Herbert H. Hyman, a pioneer of the science of polling, recognized and wrote about back in the 1940s in an article titled Do They Tell The Truth?
One reason they lie is that they are embarrassed: the wealthier you are, for instance, the more likely you are not to admit to cashing your bonds; and a shopkeeper who failed to display government posters, as the government had specifically asked them to do, will tell you with a straight face, when asked by pollsters, that they didn’t receive the posters in the mail in the first place.
Similarly, voters can mislead in certain pre-election settings. In pre-election surveys, not everyone who says they will vote a certain way, vote at all. One reason could be that voting is seen to be a good thing to do. (Though this clearly is less of a headache in Tripura, one of India’s most literate states. Here, voter turnout is consistently high, hitting nearly 90% in the latest round of polls).
British voters are particularly adept at this, one of the sharpest examples of such deception coming in 1992, when Labour leader Neil Kinnock lost to Tory John Major, despite opinion polls consistently giving Kinnock the edge. More recently, in the 2015 general election, pollsters got the results wrong throughout.
In Tripura, where the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, had ruled for 25 years—largely to the benefit of the state’s indigenous tribal population—admitting to supporting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may have been embarrassing, particularly because of the sway that the Left would have been presumed to hold over this state.
Elections are transactional affairs that promote vested interest. Why would anyone—least of all someone from a marginalized section—admit to switching to a newbie?
Before the elections, the BJP had no seats in Tripura. Now, it has 43 in alliance with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) in a 60-member legislative assembly. The Left has been reduced to 16 seats from 49 the last time around. The scale of this change is historic.
No wonder Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the results “epoch-making”. The reason for that statement also lies in the implications of the results. For an election in a tiny, predominantly agricultural state, the Tripura polls are likely to have a disproportionately large impact on the 2019 general election.
The state’s long-serving Communist chief minister Manik Sarkar, much lauded for the simplicity of his lifestyle and for being the poorest chief minister in India, conceded as much in an interview with NDTV news channel after the results were announced, nevertheless pointing out to the interviewer, “But don’t think the impact will be negative.”
Sarkar described the BJP’s victory as “completely unexpected”. But there is little doubt that the party that rules at the centre threw all its might behind this election, including money, cadres from neighbouring states, and pressed a whole array of national and regional leaders, including Modi himself, to mobilize voters in the hustings, as it has done with every assembly election since sweeping to power in the 2014 general election.
The elections are important because this is the first time the BJP has stormed a Red bastion. The reasons may be many—not least the economic aspirations unleashed among a highly literate population blighted by high unemployment.
They are important, too, because they will inform, one way or the other, the Left’s election strategy in the run-up to 2019, divided as it is on the question of whether to ally with the Congress or not. For the moment, the latter view dominates the party.
They are also important because they signal the near completion of the BJP’s saffron sweep of India. For the people of Tripura, the beneficiaries of a peace process ushered in by the Left after years of violence between Bengali settlers and tribals, the results may mean further development—at the end of the day, every literate person deserves a job.
To that individual, it matters little which party brings it. That, in a nutshell, is the history of democracy.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1