Modi’s Party Loses a Key Election, Held Under the Cloud of Covid


NEW DELHI — One of India’s feistiest opposition parties cruised to victory in state elections in West Bengal on Sunday, dealing a blow to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a campaign held during a catastrophic surge in Covid-19 infections.

Top parties had campaigned relentlessly in West Bengal, one of India’s most populous states and a stronghold of opposition to Mr. Modi, India’s most powerful prime minister in decades. Even with cases soaring and more and more people dying across India, Mr. Modi and other politicians held enormous rallies up and down the state, which critics said helped spread the virus.

By Sunday night, with nearly all the votes counted, Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party was badly trailing despite its heavy investment in West Bengal, a prize it desperately wanted to win. The party won more seats in the state assembly than it took in the last election — a sign of how dominant it has become nationwide. Nevertheless, the All India Trinamool Congress party, which holds power in the state, was safely ahead.

That 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 most withering attacks from the B.J.P., as Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist party is commonly known.

Three other states and a federal territory also released election results on Sunday, and they contained few surprises.

Kerala, in the south, will remain under the control of the Left Democratic Front, an alliance of centrist and left-leaning parties.

On Sunday, India reported around 400,000 new infections and nearly 3,700 deaths, its highest daily toll yet. Experts say that is a vast undercount and that the real toll is far higher.

Ms. Banerjee, 66, who has led the state for a decade, dismissed that as nonsense. Long popular among Muslims and other minorities, she also appealed directly to Hindus, painting the B.J.P. as troublemaking outsiders.

With almost all votes counted, it appeared she may have lost her own assembly seat in a tight race, but that will not stop her from becoming chief minister, the top state-level executive in India’s decentralized system. Under India’s Constitution, the chief minister can be appointed for up to six months and within that period must become a member of the state Parliament. With Ms. Banerjee’s party firmly in control, that will not be a difficult task for her.

Mr. Modi traveled to West Bengal about a dozen times for packed rallies (often failing to wear a mask, along with many people in the crowds). His face was so ubiquitous that people joked that he seemed to be running for chief minister.

Ms. Banerjee’s campaign slogan was simple and nativist: “Bengal chooses its own daughter.”

Even with this loss, Mr. Modi’s party is by far the dominant political outfit in India, and there is no other political figure who comes close to his popularity.

Still, given how hard he fought to win West Bengal, some analysts saw Sunday’s results as a blow to him, with Ms. Banerjee and other regional figures — specifically, M.K. Stalin in Tamil Nadu and Pinarayi Vijayan in Kerala — gaining strength.

“This government is now battling a public backlash on their mishandling of the Covid pandemic,” said Arati Jerath, a well-known political commentator. “I think it is bad news for Modi that three powerful regional chieftains are emerging from these elections.”



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