As West Bengal Vote Nears End, BJP Fights Criticism Over Mismanaged Pandemic

Yajnaseni Chakraborty
Kolkata
2021-04-27
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As West Bengal Vote Nears End, BJP Fights Criticism Over Mismanaged Pandemic People queue to vote during the West Bengal state legislature elections in Kolkata, India, April 17, 2021
[BenarNews]

West Bengal is set to vote Thursday in the last phase of state elections, amid skyrocketing coronavirus infections across India that many have blamed on mismanagement by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led central government.

West Bengal is one of two states where the BJP has been shut out for decades, but which the Hindu nationalist party hopes to control after a hard-fought campaign.

If the state legislature election here was crucial for the BJP before, it’s more so now because the party needs a win to affirm that the Indian public is still on its side, political analyst Subhamoy Maitra said.

“Even if the BJP could have remained content as the primary opposition party in the state when the elections began, the situation has vastly changed in the past month,” Maitra told BenarNews, referring to a horrific second wave of coronavirus infections that began at the end of March.

“A win for the BJP in Bengal is 10 times more essential now, given the widespread public anger against the central government and Narendra Modi for mishandling the COVID-19 crisis. Because West Bengal has become a prestige issue, a loss for the BJP will mean a further loss of face at the national level.”

COVID-19 cases in India began to decline after highs last autumn, and by January, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was patting himself on the back about the swift action he claimed he had taken and about the country being a vaccine production hub.

“India took quick, proactive decisions and that’s why we were able to fight the virus,” Modi said in January.

“With Made in India solutions, we controlled the spread of the virus and improved our health infrastructure.”

The Indian PM also ignored warnings about a second wave, after what is called the U.K. virus variant was detected in the country in October, critics said.

On Monday, India recorded 352,991 new cases and 2,812 virus-related deaths, shattering a global record for highest daily infections for a fifth straight day.

‘BJP’s parrot’

It isn’t just the public that is angry at the situation.

On Monday, the Madras High Court in the southern part of the country said that the Election Commission of India (ECI) was “singularly responsible” for the raging second wave of COVID-19 in the country, and its officers should “probably be booked on murder charges,” reported LiveLaw, a legal news website.

“You have been the most irresponsible institution in the last few months. You are the only institution singularly responsible for the situation we are facing today.”

In late February, the commission had announced elections in West Bengal and three other states ­– Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu – and the Union Territory of Puducherry between March 27 and April 29.

Campaigning and political rallies, which drew thousands of people, began in earnest with television images and photographs clearly showing that health protocols, such as maintaining a six-foot distance and wearing masks, were largely not followed.

“Were you on another planet when the election rallies were held?” the Madras High Court bench asked the ECI’s counsel on Monday, while making observations on a public interest litigation filed by a Tamil Nadu minister, who wanted the court to ensure health protocols were followed during the counting of votes on May 2.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), the party that controls the state legislature, piled on to the court’s observation.

The EIC is the “BJP’s parrot,” Banerjee said in a virtual campaign speech on Monday that was broadcast live on social media. She was alleging that the election commission had called polls at the behest of the central government.

Elections were due in the four states and one Union Territory, but critics had said they could have been put off for a few months until it was certain the pandemic had subsided.

Analyst Maitra said the court’s comments were a reaction to what appeared to be an insurmountable health crisis.

“This is probably the outcome of cumulative anger against various government agencies in an unprecedented situation, where logic may not always operate. Already, various departments and agencies have begun blaming each other,” Maitra said.

Kolkata physician Sharadwat Mukherjee, however, said Banerjee’s government was equally to blame for West Bengal being the eighth state hardest hit by COVID-19 infections.

“The COVID-19 situation in Bengal is extremely critical, and the desperate situation should have meant a desperate government,” Mukherjee told BenarNews.

“But the state government is currently in the doldrums, with the administration focused only on the elections.”

West Bengal reported 16,403 new infections and 73-virus-related deaths on Tuesday, according to data compiled by Covid19India.org. On March 27, the day the first phase of polls was held, the state had recorded only 812 new infections.

bengal2.jpg

A health official checks a voter’s temperature as a COVID-19 precaution outside a polling both during state elections in Howrah, West Bengal, April 22, 2021. [BenarNews]

On April 22, the ECI officially banned roadshows and public rallies with more than 500 people because of the alarming COVID-19 numbers.

The move followed widely publicized criticism from the Congress party and the Left parties, which said they were halting their West Bengal campaigning.

At the time, two phases of the eight-phase elections remained.

The TMC stopped the rallies and took its campaigning online.

But BJP Bengal chief Dilip Ghosh posted pictures on his Twitter account showing that the BJP continued its public meetings. The photographs show large crowds with many people not wearing masks, though it is hard to tell whether there were more than 500 people in attendance.

One Kolkata voter – a COVID-19 survivor – chose not to vote on Monday, during the seventh phase of polling. He said he abstained for two reasons.

“One, this is my tiny protest against both the central and state governments, which could easily have postponed elections considering the situation. When we are rushing to find beds and medicines and oxygen for friends and relatives, I don’t think many of us were in a mood for politics,” 45-year-old Subhadip Basu told BenarNews.

“And two, I was afraid of a second infection in a crowded voting booth.”

According to ECI statistics, the seventh phase of polling in West Bengal saw almost 75 percent voter turnout in a state where the voting percentage has traditionally been high. In the last state election in 2016, total voter turnout was 80 percent.

In India, a high voter turnout is seen by many analysts as a sign of what they call anti-incumbency – voting against the party in power.

But the humongous spike in COVID-19 infections would have changed any pre-existing patterns and certainly the endgame, analyst Maitra said.

A formidable opponent

As it is, the BJP was in for a tough fight against Banerjee, whose TMC in 2016 won a whopping 211 of 294 seats. The BJP won a paltry three. A party needs to win a simple majority to win power – that is, 148 seats.

The BJP needs to win Bengal and Kerala to establish a pan-India presence. The BJP also needs to defeat Banerjee, who is a thorn in its side.

Banerjee has twice attempted a “secular” coalition of regional parties across India to form a front against Modi and his belligerently Hindu-nationalist BJP.

The one major incident of violence during the earlier election phases took a communal turn, when four Muslims were killed in firing by Central Industrial Security Forces personnel in the Sitalkuchi state assembly segment in Cooch Behar district on April 10.

A senior district police official said the central police had fired “in self-defense.” The BJP said Banerjee instigated locals to attack the central force. But Banerjee said the incident was “pre-planned murder” in a Muslim-majority constituency, local media reported.

In West Bengal, the three principal contenders in these elections are the BJP, the TMC, and the Left-Congress alliance. The TMC and some analysts said that the Sitalkuchi incident would harm the BJP.

Analyst Maitra believes that whichever party wins, will ride to victory with a clear majority, although he and many other analysts do not think the Left-Congress alliance has a realistic chance.

“The target for TMC should be 180 seats, so that their position cannot be threatened,” Maitra said.

“The BJP should be eyeing around 120, which means they can cobble a few more seats together to stake a claim,” Mitra said.

In the run-up to the elections, a slew of TMC politicians defected to the BJP.

Among the TMC defections to the BJP were three of Banerjee’s trusted lieutenants, two of whom were implicated in a financial scam.

Banerjee had called these defectors “greedy and corrupt.” Others said the BJP’s vast financial resources enabled it to attract top TMC politicians.

The BJP doesn’t have a strong enough grassroots cadre or local leaders in West Bengal, and defections are one way to get known faces into the party before the elections, critics had said.

The BJP countered by saying that the TMC had been reduced to “extortion, corruption and nepotism,” which is why people were leaving the party.

Come Sunday, the results will tell whether the BJP gets swept away in West Bengal under a tsunami of soaring COVID-19 infections or whether the party will trump the pandemic.

Shailaja Neelakantan in Washington contributed to this report.

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