Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist party suffered a setback on Sunday when it lost a fiercely contested state poll. Over the past month, India held its most extensive democratic exercise in two years, with 175 million people voting in five regional elections.
But the marathon polls involved massive rallies where many attendees were maskless, and a record-breaking coronavirus spike coincided with the final voting phases. Experts blame complacency about the pandemic and religious festivals attended by millions of devotees and political rallies for the virus crisis.
The most important election was in the eastern state of West Bengal, home to 90 million people.
Mr Modi and his right-hand man, Home Minister Amit Shah, campaigned heavily in the state as they sought to end a decade of rule by firebrand leader Mamata Banerjee. But as results started trickling in, they showed Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) party on course for a third term.
Thousands of TMC supporters took to the streets, despite a virus-related ban on celebrations.
In a victory speech later Sunday, 66-year-old Ms. Banerjee said West Bengal’s “immediate challenge is to combat the Covid-19, and we are confident that we will win”. “This victory has saved the humanity, the people of India. It’s the victory of India,” Banerjee, a fierce critic of Mr. Modi, added.
Mr. Modi tweeted his congratulations but added that his party had grown its support in the state “from a negligible presence earlier”. Ms. Banerjee, however, lost her seat in Nandigram to a former confidant who defected to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). She vowed to challenge the loss in court. She can still be sworn back in as chief minister but must be elected in another constituency within six months.
Earlier, polling for two constituencies was postponed after two candidates died of COVID-19.
Despite the defeat in West Bengal, there was a silver lining for the BJP “in the sense that it has now established itself as the principal opposition to the TMC,” political strategist Amitabh Tiwari told AFP. But it was also a setback since the party’s top leadership put “a lot of political capital into the state, they did a lot of rallies… it was perceived to be a close contest and some of the opinion polls were saying that the BJP could win there.”