NEW DELHI – One of India’s liveliest opposition parties led the first results of the West Bengal state election on Sunday, a closely watched race that came about amid a catastrophic surge in Covid-19 infections.
In West Bengal, one of the most populous states in India and a stronghold of the opposition to the powerful Prime Minister Narendra Modi, top parties had fought tirelessly. Even as cases skyrocketed and more people died across India, Mr. Modi and other politicians held huge rallies across the state, which critics say helped spread the disease.
By early Sunday afternoon, Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party was behind schedule despite their heavy investment in West Bengal, a prize they dearly wanted to win. The party is likely to win more seats in the state assembly than in the last election – a sign of how dominant it has become nationwide. Even so, the All India Trinamool Congress party, which holds power in the state, certainly seemed to be ahead.
This party is led by Mamata Banerjee, India’s only female prime minister who has developed her own personality cult and reputation as a street fighter strong enough to fend off the BJP’s worst faded attacks, such as Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist party well known.
Three other states and one federal area also released early election results on Sunday that contained few surprises.
Kerala in the south seemed likely to remain under the control of the Left Democratic Front, an alliance of centrist and leftist parties.
Tamil Nadu, also in the south and home to some of India’s most innovative tech companies, is likely controlled by the centrist alliance Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, according to polls on the exit.
Assam, a northeastern region plagued by some very divisive religious and civic issues, will remain a stronghold of the BJP
And a regional party affiliated with the BJP appeared to have a firm head start in Puducherry, a former French colony on the east coast of India that is now controlled by the central government.
“Early trends suggest that Modi’s personal, divisive and aggressive campaign in West Bengal has not produced the expected results,” said Gilles Verniers, professor of political science at Ashoka University near New Delhi. “The BJP has failed to gain a foothold in the south, which shows that nationalist rhetoric alone is not enough to expand the base of the BJP.”
Many Indians were stunned that these elections were actually being held. The country is facing the biggest crisis in decades. A second wave of the coronavirus is causing major illness and death. Hospitals are so full that people die on the streets.
The cremation sites work day and night and burn thousands of bodies. New Delhi is suffering from an acute shortage of medical oxygen and dozens have died gasping for breath in their hospital beds.
On Sunday, India reported around 400,000 new infections and nearly 3,700 deaths, the highest daily number to date. Experts say that this is a tremendously outnumbered number and that the actual toll is far higher.
Mr Modi was due to meet with his health minister on Sunday to discuss the lack of oxygen and concerns that doctors and nurses are overwhelmed and exhausted. On Saturday, Indian officials announced that the first batch of Russian vaccine, Sputnik V, had arrived, fueling India’s declining vaccination campaign.
Critics have blown up Mr. Modi’s handling of the crisis. His government ignored warnings from scientists and its own Covid-19 task force did not meet for months. To signal that India is open to business, Mr Modi himself declared an early victory over Covid at the end of January, while a mere infection pause emerged.
Much of India dropped its guard. Coupled with the emergence of more dangerous variants and the sluggish vaccination campaign, this is likely to have fueled the staggering number of infections, the worst numbers the world has ever seen.
The elections in West Bengal took place gradually, beginning at the end of March and ending last week. Many reviewers said it should have been canceled, or at least rallies should have been stopped.
But that didn’t happen. Mr. Modi’s party went on the attack, telling Hindu voters that if they did not vote for Mr. Modi’s party, their deepest religious beliefs could be at risk.
Ms. Banerjee, 66, who has run the state for a decade, dismissed this as nonsense. It has long been popular with Muslims and other minorities and also appealed directly to Hindus. She painted the BJP as an outsider to their state, intent on causing trouble.
Mr. Modi traveled to West Bengal about a dozen times to attend rallies (often without a mask, with many people in the crowd). His face was so ubiquitous that people joked that he appeared to be running for prime minister, the top state executive in the decentralized system of India.
Ms. Banerjee’s campaign slogan was simple and nativist: “Bengal chooses its own daughter.”
Despite this likely loss, Mr. Modi’s party is by far the dominant political outfit in India, and there is no other political figure that comes close to his popularity.
Given the tough battle over West Bengal, some analysts saw Sunday’s results as a blow to him. Ms. Banerjee and other regional figures – notably MK Stalin in Tamil Nadu and Pinarayi Vijayan in Kerala – gained strength.
“This government is now fighting a public backlash against the mistreatment of the Covid pandemic,” said Arati Jerath, a noted political commentator. “I think it is bad news for Modi that three powerful regional chiefs emerge from these elections.”