Narendra Modi’s Party Loses Key State Poll amid Anger over COVID-19 Surge

Yajnaseni Chakraborty
Narendra Modi’s Party Loses Key State Poll amid Anger over COVID-19 Surge A supporter of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee shows a victory sign after her party won state elections, in Kolkata, India, May 2, 2021.

Updated at 2:50 p.m. ET on 2021-05-02

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s party swept the state elections on Sunday, routing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, which many blame for the horrific nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases.

Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came a distant second in state legislature polls, a result that could have long-term national repercussions for the party, analysts said. Still, the party managed to widely increase its share of seats in the state assembly.

For Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) party, this was a third consecutive win in state elections. However, Banerjee lost Nandigram, the seat she was contesting from.

“To win a greater battle, one has to sacrifice something,” Banerjee told supporters in a speech broadcast live on Facebook.

“We have won the match, don’t be upset about Nandigram. We will take this matter to court. How can the result in Nandigram be different from that in all other constituencies,” she said as her party alleged counting irregularities.

Banerjee, 66, was projected as her party’s chief ministerial candidate throughout the campaign, and now she would need to win a by-election to the state assembly within six months, according to India’s election laws. She was chief minister during the TMC’s earlier two terms and is currently the only woman chief minister in India.

Toward the end of almost 12 hours of counting – a much slower process than before due to pandemic-related health protocols – Banerjee’s TMC had won or was leading significantly in 215 of 292 seats. In the last state elections in 2016, the TMC had won 211 seats. The TMC’s vote share also rose, nearly 4 percentage points from 2016, to 48.26 percent.

The BJP had won or was leading in 78 seats, having managed to increase its seat share from three in 2016. Counting was still underway Sunday evening local time.

Modi congratulated Banerjee on Twitter.

“Congratulations to Mamata didi for the TMC’s win in West Bengal. The Centre will continue to extend all possible support to the West Bengal Government to fulfil people’s aspirations and also to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. Banerjee is called ‘didi’ – which means sister – by her supporters.

Results in polls in three other states and one union territory were also declared on Sunday. The BJP lost in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, retained Assam, and won in Puducherry where it contested in an alliance with other parties.

But it is the West Bengal defeat that is a huge loss of face for Modi’s party at the national level, said Aditya Nigam, a political theorist at New Delhi’s Center for the Study of Developing Societies.

Many “see this win as the beginning of a countdown against the BJP. And it will impact next year’s state elections in Uttar Pradesh, too,” Nigam told BenarNews, about a northern Indian state which has a BJP government.

Uttar Pradesh sends the largest number of candidates to India’s Parliament. “As Uttar Pradesh goes, so goes India,” many have said before. The next general elections in India are to take place in 2024.

The BJP had to win Bengal to establish a pan-India presence. And it had to defeat Banerjee, who has been 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.

Rahul Gandhi, whose Congress party contested with left parties in West Bengal, commended Banerjee for her party’s decisive win against the BJP.

“I’m happy to congratulate Mamata ji and the people of West Bengal for soundly defeating the BJP.”

‘Approach of arrogant conquest’

The build up to the West Bengal polls had seen the birth of a ‘No Vote to BJP’ campaign in association with farmers’ organizations.

Thousands of farmers have been protesting since last August against new farms law passed by the BJP-led central government. Farmers say the laws will lead to reduced agricultural revenue for the farming community.

In March, group of farmers got on their tractors and drove nearly a 1,000 miles to Kolkata to urge voters against casting their ballot for the BJP.

Tanmay Ghosh, a spokesperson for the ‘No Vote to BJP’ campaign said the TMC’s win is a slap in the face for the BJP.

“The defeat in Bengal is a huge blow to the fascist aggression of the BJP across the nation. It will also boost popular movements like the farmers’ protest,” Ghosh said in a statement after it became clear the TMC was heading for a sweeping win.

In the months leading up to the state election in West Bengal, a slew of TMC politicians defected to the BJP. Banerjee had called these defectors “greedy and corrupt.” Others said the BJP’s vast financial resources enabled it to attract top TMC politicians.

These defections turned voters against the BJP, said veteran journalist and political analyst Suvashis Maitra.

“The BJP’s approach of arrogant conquest antagonized voters,” Maitra told BenarNews.

“Also, the constant influx of national-level BJP leaders, who flew in helicopters and stayed in five-star hotels, reinforced Banerjee’s claim that the BJP was a party of prosperous outsiders.”

Maitra also said that the platforms on which the BJP had sought to draw votes – religion, and corruption within the TMC – appear to have turned off voters.

“Instead, the defections of important but allegedly corrupt TMC leaders to the BJP just days before the elections had a negative fallout. Voters saw the BJP as a party of traitors,” he said.

Elections in the four states and one union territory were held amid an intense second wave of COVID-19 cases.

Scientists from a government-appointed forum of advisers said that the Modi government ignored warnings about a new, more contagious variant of the coronavirus in the country, Reuters news agency reported on Sunday.

Four scientists who are part of the forum said that despite the warning, the central government did not impose restrictions and allowed a mass Hindu festival to take place. In addition, Modi’s BJP and opposition politicians held huge political rallies where no health protocols were followed.

On Saturday, the country reported 392,603 new COVID-19 cases and 3,673 virus-related deaths, taking the cumulative caseload to 19.6 million and total fatalities to nearly 216,000.


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