NEW DELHI – One of India’s bravest opposition parties led Sunday in the first election results in the state of West Bengal, a closely watched race amid a catastrophic outbreak of infections in West Bengal. Covid-19.
The main parties had campaigned relentlessly in West Bengal, one of India’s most populous states and a stronghold of opposition to Narendra Modi, the powerful prime minister. Even with cases booming and more people dying across India, Mr. Modi and other politicians staged huge rallies statewide, which critics say helped to spread the disease.
At the start of Sunday afternoon, Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party was lagging behind despite its heavy investment in West Bengal, a prize he desperately wanted to win. The party seemed likely to win more seats in the state assembly than it did in the last election – a sign of how dominant it has become across the country. Nonetheless, the All India Trinamool Congress party, which holds power in the state, appeared to be in the lead.
This party is led by Mamata banerjee, India’s only female chief minister, who has developed her own cult of personality and a reputation as a street fighter strong enough to ward off the BJP’s fiercest attacks, such as Mr. Modi’s Hindu Nationalist Party is generally known.
Three other states and one federal territory also released early election results on Sunday, and they contained few surprises.
Kerala in the south appears to remain under the control of the Democratic Left Front, an alliance of centrist and left parties.
Tamil Nadu, also in the south and home to some of India’s most innovative tech companies, is likely to be controlled by Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, a centrist alliance, as polls predicted.
Assam, a northeastern region plagued by controversial religious and citizenship issues, will remain a stronghold of the BJP
And a regional party aligned with the BJP seemed firmly ahead in Pondicherry, a former French colony on the east coast of India that is now a territory controlled by the central government.
“Early trends indicate that Modi’s personal, confrontational and aggressive campaign in West Bengal has not yielded the desired results,” said Gilles Verniers, professor of political science at Ashoka University near New Delhi. “The BJP has failed to make inroads in the south, which shows that nationalist rhetoric alone is not sufficient to broaden the base of the BJP.
Many Indians were amazed that these elections even took place. The country faces its biggest crisis in decades, with a second wave of coronavirus causing widespread illness and death. The hospitals are so full that people are dying on the streets.
Cremation sites operate day and night, burning thousands of bodies. In New Delhi, there is a severe shortage of medical oxygen and dozens of people have died breathlessly in their hospital beds.
India reported around 400,000 new infections and nearly 3,700 deaths on Sunday, its highest daily toll to date. Experts say this is a considerable undercoverage and the real cost is much higher.
Mr Modi was due to meet with his health minister on Sunday to discuss the oxygen shortage and concerns that doctors and nurses are overwhelmed and exhausted. Indian officials announced on Saturday that the first batch of Russian vaccine, Sputnik V, had arrived, a boost to India’s declining vaccination campaign.
Critics criticized Mr. Modi’s handling of the crisis. His government ignored scientists’ warnings and his own Covid-19 task force did not meet for months. To signal India was open for business, Mr Modi himself declared an untimely victory over Covid in late January, during what turned out to be a mere lull in infections.
Much of India has let its guard down. This, along with the emergence of more dangerous variants and the slow vaccination campaign, is believed to have fueled the staggering number of infections, the worst numbers the world has seen.
Elections in West Bengal have proceeded in stages, starting in late March and continuing through the last week. Many critics have said it should have been canceled or that the rallies, at the very least, should have been stopped.
But that did not happen. Mr. Modi’s party launched the attack, telling Hindu voters that if they do not vote for Mr. Modi’s party, their deepest religious beliefs could be at risk.
Ms Banerjee, 66, who has ruled the state for a decade, dismissed this as nonsense. Long popular among Muslims and other minorities, she also appealed directly to Hindus, portraying the BJP as outsiders to her state who intended to stir up trouble.
Mr Modi has been to West Bengal a dozen times for crowded gatherings (often failing to wear a mask, with many people in the crowd). His face was so ubiquitous that people joked that he appeared to be running for chief minister, the highest state leader in India’s decentralized system.
Ms. Banerjee’s campaign slogan was simple and nativist: “Bengal chooses its own daughter.”
Even with this likely loss, Mr. Modi’s party is by far the dominant political formation in India, and no other political figure comes close to its popularity.
Yet given how hard he fought to win West Bengal, some analysts saw Sunday’s results as a blow to him, along with Ms Banerjee and other regional figures – in particular, MP Stalin in the Tamil Nadu and Pinarayi Vijayan in Kerala – gaining strength.
“This government is now fighting a public reaction to its mismanagement of the Covid pandemic,” said Arati Jerath, a well-known political commentator. “I think it’s bad news for Modi that three powerful regional leaders are emerging from these elections.”