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India's election results challenge Modi's political future

With thousands of critics campaigning for the PM's resignation, the pro-Hindu BJP is at a crossroads in its history

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Published: May 03, 2021 11:07 AM GMT

Updated: May 03, 2021 11:10 AM GMT

India's election results challenge Modi's political future

Trinamool Congress party leader Mamata Banerjee visits the Kalighat temple in Kolkata on May 2 to offer prayers following the party's victory in the West Bengal legislative assembly election. (Photo: AFP)

The results of elections in five Indian states were declared on May 2 as the country reeled under the trauma of increasing Covid-19 cases.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) suffered considerable damage in the polls that challenges his and his party’s political future.

In a normal situation, the election results of five small states should not be seen as a mandate on Modi and his party, which heads a government of 1.4 billion people in a federation of 29 states.

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But these are extraordinary times. As pandemic cases were spiraling, Modi’s focus on governance could have probably offered a different story on deaths and people's sufferings.

However, Modi prioritized elections. As he holds virtually all the power in the party and the government, and personally campaigned in elections, observers would not be wrong to say the sizable population spread over five states has voted against him and his party.

The BJP could not win even a single seat in Kerala’s 140-seat legislative house. Worse, it lost the one seat it laboriously won five years ago in the previous state election.

The BJP has met its match and lost

In Tamil Nadu state, the BJP and allies lost to the rival alliance led by the local DMK party, which included Congress and communists. The DMK-Congress alliance won 159 seats in a 234-member legislature, leaving only 75 seats to the BJP alliance.

It was a different story in Assam and Puducherry. The BJP retained power in Assam by winning 75 of the 126 seats in the house. In Puducherry, a BJP alliance won 16 of the 30 seats.

But the major setback was in sensitive West Bengal state, where Modi and the party’s top leaders campaigned hard but were humbled. The local Trinamool Congress Party won 214 of the 292 seats in the legislative house. The BJP could win only 76 seats.

The alleged gross failures of Modi’s administrative management of the second wave of Covid were reflected in the West Bengal mandate. The BJP could win only 24 of the 114 seats that went to the polls in the last three phases, when the pandemic had turned traumatic.

With thousands of Modi critics campaigning for his resignation, and the BJP’s electoral debacle adding fuel to their demands, the pro-Hindu party is indeed at a crossroads in its history.

"The BJP has met its match and lost,” says Congress lawmaker Shashi Tharoor, praising the success of Mamata Banerjee, the leader of Trinamool (Grassroots) Congress, a party based in West Bengal.

Ironically, India's principal opposition Congress party lost badly in Tharoor's own state of Kerala and in Assam in northeast India.

Do these elections signal the further marginalization of Congress, which lost two elections to Modi in 2014 and 2019?

"In terms of national politics, if the Indian opposition wants to fight Modi, it is high time Congress leader Rahul Gandhi gives up his space and brings in Mamata Banerjee as the leader of the 'united opposition' to take on the prime minister in 2024," says analyst Vidyarthi Kumar.

My Bengal has saved India today

Others may not reject the idea outright. Shiv Sena, a regional party from western state Maharashtra, has called the Trinamool win "a victory of Bengal's tigress."

West Bengal state, bordering Bangladesh, is known for its typical Bengal tigers in the jungles of the green forested Sundarbans.

Other regional politicians such as Sharad Pawar and Akhilesh Yadav — two former chief ministers in the large states of Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh — also hailed Banerjee’s win.

"My Bengal has saved India today," Banerjee, the popular spinster politician, said after the results came in.

From the BJP's perspective, its seats in the West Bengal legislature increased from three in 2016 to 76 this time. In any other electoral story, this is huge. But the BJP had hyped its entire campaign, claiming it would win 200-plus seats and bring down Banerjee.

Here lay the folly. This aggrandizement — a characteristic of Modi's politics — epitomized the sloppiness and errors in electoral strategy.

The BJP underestimated the influence of Banerjee in the state and ignored the Muslims who are known for voting against Modi’s party.

In Bengal, she has a history of fighting the communists for two decades and ousting them successfully in 2011 to become the state’s chief minister.

She is incidentally India's only female chief minister. But paradoxically yet again, she lost the latest polls she contested from rural Bengal’s Nandigram constituency.

She still can become chief minister if her party chooses her, but she has to win a seat in a by-poll within six months. BJP leaders are now trying to use this against her.

"The media analysis is wrong about the Bengal mandate. The BJP's numerical strength has increased and Banerjee herself lost the election. This is actually an occasion of the BJP's moral victory and a story of moral defeat for Banerjee,” BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma told UCA News.

During the second wave of the pandemic, Modi's credibility as an administrator has already come under question

Setbacks in state elections for Modi and the BJP have come in the past as well.

In 2015, the BJP lost two crucial elections in Bihar and Delhi. In 2020, within months of a landslide win in parliamentary elections, the BJP lost yet again in Delhi. In 2018, the BJP lost state polls in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maoist-infested Chhattisgarh.

Nevertheless, these defeats did not dampen Modi's electoral politics at national level and perhaps even his popularity.

But this time around, the Covid situation has changed the reality on the ground. During the second wave of the pandemic, Modi's credibility as an administrator has already come under question.

Banerjee will probably have a chance to take on Modi at national level if other opposition leaders including Gandhi give up their ego and accept her leadership.

Importantly, Banerjee’s image as an administrator is essentially defined by the culture of welfarism with no consideration of the economy and an allegedly blatant pro-Muslim stance.

If she is to make a deeper penetration into national politics, she ought to be more sensitive to pro-Hindu sentiments.

Banerjee is well aware of this image and visited a popular temple in Kolkata to thank Goddess Kali for the election victory.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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