Narendra Modi loses key state election as Covid grips India

PM defeated in West Bengal as voters send message over handling of coronavirus crisis

India’s prime minister has suffered a rare political defeat in a key state election, amid signs of a voter backlash over his handling of the coronavirus disaster as the country recorded a record number of deaths.

Narendra Modi had been expected to make significant gains on Sunday in West Bengal, one of few states where his rightwing Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) does not have a parliamentary majority. Instead, Mamata Banerjee, a powerful regional politician and prominent Modi critic, won a third term as chief minister.

The results gave Ms Banerjee's All India Trinamool Congress a comfortable majority, with her party clocking up 216 seats in the 294-seat assembly. The BJP won 75 seats, up on its performance in 2016 when it got just three but well short of predictions.

Mr Modi made dozens of speeches on the campaign trail in West Bengal, together with his home minister, Amit Shah, who visited as recently as last weekend. Both have been accused of prioritising politics over their response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

On Sunday, India’s new coronavirus cases fell slightly but there were a record 3,689 new deaths. Grim scenes continued to unfold, with people dying in hospital corridors, on roads and in their homes. Car parks have been turned into cremation grounds, while desperate families scramble to find medicines and oxygen.

Authorities reported 392,488 new cases, with the total now at 19.56 million. The virus has killed 215,542 people, according to official figures. The actual death toll is estimated to be two to five times higher.

The UK said it was going to step up its help to the Indian government by providing a further 1,000 ventilators for use in India’s hospitals.

Up to 10 Indian states and union territories have imposed some form of restrictions. The federal government in Delhi, however, remains reluctant to impose a national lockdown, citing the damage this would do to the economy, which shrank dramatically last year.

Despite warnings from scientists of a looming second wave in India, Mr Modi addressed large rallies in West Bengal throughout February and March. He refused to wear a mask. There was little sign of social distancing. His decision to turn a blind eye to the rising infection rate was fuelled by an apparent desperation to win the state. In recent weeks this took up all the government’s attention.

The election was the most drawn-out in Bengal’s history, conducted in eight phases over a month. The election commission – effectively controlled by the BJP – refused early requests from opposition parties to shrink the poll into a shorter period and to make campaigning virtual.

Mr Modi’s failure to seize Bengal can be seen in part as a response to his incompetent handling of the pandemic, which over the past two weeks has become glaringly apparent. But voters also rejected the BJP’s divisive anti-Muslim politics in Bengal, which was the main thrust of its campaign. It is testament, too, to the enduring popularity of Ms Banerjee, India’s only female chief minister, in power since 2011 and the target of repeated Modi attacks.

Votes were being counted in several other Indian states including Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry. The BJP was on track to keep Assam. In Kerala the leftwing chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, was re-elected, an unprecedented feat for an incumbent.

Most of the votes in the state elections were cast in March but polling in some constituencies continued through April, just as India started detecting thousands of fresh coronavirus infections every day. On Saturday, new cases reached a record daily high of 401,993.

The Indian foreign ministry has been pressing G7 leaders meeting in London this week to relax patent rules to allow the more widespread production of vaccines but the idea has been rejected in West. India ironically has been the world's largest manufacturer of vaccines, but has found itself short partly due to the large number that are committed for exports. – Guardian