India's ruling celebration has simply misplaced a key election. It's worrying that they even had an opportunity.
In recent years, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a far-right Hindu nationalist faction, have dominated national politics. Since coming to power in 2014, Modi and BJP have attacked the very foundations of India's political system and gradually undermined the guard rails protecting democracy.
But this weekend there was a notable setback for Modi: an electoral defeat by a margin beyond expectations.
In local elections in five states, the BJP lost the biggest prize: control over the legislative assembly in West Bengal. The defeat came amid signs of anger for Modi's quest to dominate India – the world's worst Covid-19 outbreak, not least due to government policies, especially her.
West Bengal is a large and diverse cultural center that has been ruled by a communist faction for three decades. The BJP under Modi is a bit like the GOP under Donald Trump, only far more popular and politically effective. This anti-Muslim faction, which took control of the local government in a left-wing bastion, would have been a sign that their efforts to eradicate the political opposition have been successful and that Indian democracy is continuing to follow the path of its late cousins below went Turkey, Hungary and Venezuela.
Pre-election coverage suggested the BJP had a real chance to defeat incumbent Prime Minister Mamata Banerjee and her left-wing Trinamool Congress Party (TMC). The national party has put resources into the struggle; Prime Minister Modi hosted a series of large election rallies across the state while the Indian Electoral Commission tilted the rules of the competition in their favor and planned voting to facilitate BJP campaigns and turnout in BJP strongholds.
The results published on Sunday showed, however, that Modi's move had been neglected: The current count shows that the TMC in the parliament of West Bengal has a super-majority of around 213 of 294 seats, less than 80.
While this is a significant improvement on the party's performance in the last state elections in 2016, it is well below expectations prior to the elections. Given the context – West Bengal is a really hostile area for the BJP – Indian political experts disagree on how bad this result is for the BJP. Although the party has lost, some experts say, the fact that the BJP is the main opposition party in a place like West Bengal – something that wasn't expected just a few years ago – underscores Modi's enduring strengths.
But many also view the results as the latest in a series of setbacks the party has seen recently: the Covid-19 outbreak, defeats in previous state elections, and mass protests against government policies.
"A lot has not gone right for this government since 2019," says Neelanjan Sircar, political scientist at Ashoka University. “Systemic dominance requires you to prove your dominance. And if you can't prove your dominance, you're in a bad position. "
The coronavirus context is also important.
The BJP campaign in West Bengal held mass rallies amid rising case numbers in the state. There is some statistical evidence that the campaign helped make the West Bengal outbreak the fastest growing in the country at the time the results were tabulated.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at a rally in West Bengal on April 12, 2021.
Samir Jana / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
And arguably the Modi government bears the lion's share of the responsibility for the national outbreak. The prime minister declared “victory” over Covid-19 in January and relaxed strict restrictions so the virus could spread in a dangerous clip.
Taken together, these two events point to an opening to the broken Indian opposition. West Bengal shows that Modi can be beaten even if he stacks the deck in his favor. The government's failures in the outbreak are shifting the public focus away from Modi's messages and towards concrete policies that Modi failed to do.
However, the fact that Modi and the BJP fared as well as they did in an opposition stronghold shows how much influence he and the party continue to have. Indian democracy is still in great trouble as it is haunted by a remarkably popular and charismatic prime minister with a clear authoritarian bias.
Why West Bengal matters
At first glance, the results in West Bengal could easily be seen as a success for the BJP.
In the state elections in 2016, the party only won three seats in the state assembly; in 2021 it should hold around 77 – – over 25 times that number. With the exception of the TMC, every other party was demolished, including Congress, the BJP's leading national rival.
"Even with a decisive loss, Modi's party has emerged as the greatest challenger to power today," writes Bhuvan Bagga, a South Asian correspondent for Agence France-Presse – an astonishing development in a traditionally left-wing state where the main opponents of TMC are traditionally Congress and Communists.
For this reason, some BJP opponents welcome the results in West Bengal with more relief than cheers. They feel like a disaster has been averted and no great victory has been achieved.
“The counterstrike from Bengal is in a spiral authoritarianism. it is plundering and unhindered, ”writes Sankarthan Thakur, the national affairs editor of the Telegraph (an Indian newspaper). "More than once in our recent past the staff of the challenge has been selected (by the opposition), more than once it has been dropped."
Other Indian political experts, however, consider the scale of BJP's defeat to be remarkable – and it could turn out to be really significant to the country's political development.
First, they point out, the West Bengal results actually suggest that the strength of the BJP in the state is weakening, not increasing. In 2019, India held national parliamentary elections that were dominated by the BJP. In this competition, the party won a significantly larger percentage of the votes in West Bengal than in 2021: If the percentage had stayed constant in 2019, the BJP would have won 121 seats in the State Assembly, about 40 percent more than in 2021. That’s a sharp decline in two years.
Second, the choice in West Bengal is not an isolated one. In a number of other notable state elections, including a competition in 2019 in Maharashtra (home of the megacity Mumbai) and an election in 2020 in Delhi (home of the capital New Delhi), the party has either lost power or exceeded expectations. "Between 2019 and 2021, the BJP had problems in most state elections," says Rahul Verma, a member of the think tank of the non-partisan center for political research in New Delhi.
Third, the effectiveness of the TMC campaign strategy pointed to possible weaknesses in the BJP's political coalition.
TMC Chairman Mamata Banerjee celebrates her party's victory during a May 2nd press conference.
Debajyoti Chakraborty / NurPhoto / Getty Images
Modi's party thrives on religious polarization; Their basic strategy is to unite India's Hindu majority by making the Muslim minority the scapegoat. Since India is 80 percent Hindu country, pure mathematics means that a successful polarization of the country on communal lines works in favor of the party. But Banerjee, the leader of the TMC, successfully fragmented the Hindu vote by appealing to the poor and women. By cleverly hammering on gender and class inequality, the TMC has developed a strategy that could prove to be a model for other opposition parties.
"What the TMC has shown is that there is a version of welfare policy for the poor and a version of women's policy that essentially act as cross-sectional flows with Hindu-Muslim polarization," says Sircar. “The BJP has an undefended flank when it comes to the poor. If a political actor can really take up this, it can really damage the BJP. "
Fourth, and finally, the results show that even a concerted BJP effort to win an election, with all of its unfair advantages, can be neglected.
Across the country, Modi has passed a series of guidelines aimed at strengthening his and his party's political power – arresting peaceful protesters for sedition, punishing critical media by cutting off critical advertising dollars, and re-adjusting campaign funding rules write to give yourself unfair access to dark money. In a 2021 report, V-Dem, the first quantitative evaluation of democracy, downgraded India from a democracy to an "electoral democracy".
"There are questions about how free and fair elections are that we haven't seen in decades," Milan Vaishnav, an expert on India at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me before the results were announced for West Bengal.
In that campaign, the supposedly neutral Indian Electoral Commission planned an unusual 34-day voting period that the BJP appeared to allow to bring to bear its much greater resources – one of several questionable decisions in the recent elections that favored the ruling party.
As the Covid-19 outbreak worsened, the commission refused to end mass campaigns until the BJP had already voluntarily stopped them. And it refused to seriously punish BJP leaders for outright incidents of hate speech during the campaign, which is nominally prohibited under Indian law. It was all so bad that Prashant Kishor, the TMC's leading political strategist, argued with real justification that the Commission "acted like an arm of the power in Delhi".
Despite all of this, the BJP lost in a state where it went all-in and tried to influence the outcome by legitimate and illegitimate means alike. And it not only lost, but lost a lot more than expected. This is a welcome sign in a country where the health of democracy remains weak at best.
"The level of control and control over the BJP's resources is unparalleled," says Verma. "The results in Bengal show that both elections and democratic politics are done in a way that resources bring you advantage, but that cannot ensure victory."
Coronavirus, West Bengal, and the threat to the power of Modi
The elections in West Bengal are crucially intertwined with what is currently India's greatest history (and arguably one of the greatest stories in the world): the country's coronavirus outbreak.
The situation is dire both nationally and in West Bengal. Shortly before the elections, India recorded a new national high of 3,689 deaths in just 24 hours. In Kolkata, the capital and largest city of West Bengal, the test positivity rate is around 50 percent.
The election itself appears to have contributed to the outbreak – an Indian court accused the electoral commission of "being solely responsible for the second wave of Covid" adding that their leadership "should likely be booked for murder".
"There is no doubt that the electoral process led to the spread of the corona in West Bengal," Punyabrata Goon, a doctor in West Bengal, told Scroll.in. “By February and March, Bengal had the disease under control. But when the campaigns started with a large crowd and people came from the affected states, the cases skyrocketed. "
It is not clear whether this surge violated the BJP at the ballot box in West Bengal. On the one hand, quite a few votes were cast before the number of local cases increased. On the flip side, there is some early evidence – according to calculations by Ashoka political scientist Gilles Verniers – that the BJP underperformed well in later stages of the election, when the outbreak occurred.
This points to a bigger question currently looming in Indian politics: To what extent will the government's Covid-19 failures exacerbate the political weaknesses shown in West Bengal and pose a real political threat to Modi's power?
There is little doubt that the government's approach to the outbreak played a major role in the current surge. The journalist T.V. Padma writes in Nature, a leading scientific journal, and paints a terrible and clear picture of an over-hasty, politically motivated reopening.
“As recently as March, the government boasted repeatedly that results of serological tests and India's main computer model for predicting the spread of disease showed the country was in the 'end game' of the pandemic. By then, shopping malls, restaurants and theaters across the country had reopened, ”she writes. “Public health experts had warned that the fight against the pandemic was not over, that better data was needed and that precautionary measures were needed. They went unheard. Their arguments did not match the government's narrative that the pandemic was under control. "
A medical worker at a spontaneous vaccination center in New Delhi on May 4th.
Rebecca Conway / Getty Images
As the boom began, a number of other failures affected the government's response – a disaster that the writer Arundhati Roy has described as a "crime against humanity". There was a severe shortage of oxygen, intensive care beds, and Covid management drugs like remdesivir. The vaccination campaign was slow. As of April 30, only 2 percent were fully vaccinated. The official statistics are very imprecise and almost certainly underestimate the number of cases and deaths by a significant factor.
Throughout all of this, the government has been working to control information that makes it look bad. It has heavily armed Twitter and Facebook to ban posts critical of the government.
In other countries, this kind of failure appears to have hurt Modi-style right-wing populists. Trump campaign internal data suggested that his handling of Covid contributed to his 2020 defeat. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro's polls have fallen as the country sees an outbreak second only to India. Even Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, one of the most effective in this cohort in consolidating power, has weakened his position in the face of the world's worst per capita mortality rates.
"What will happen to Modi depends on what he and his group are doing on the Covid crisis," says Verma.
Even so, it's important not to overstate modes' weaknesses.
He remains very popular personally. His party's support in key regions, particularly in densely populated northern India, remains strong. The leading national opposition party, Congress, is weak and rudderless; It is not clear whether regional parties like the TMC can join Congress and pose a serious national challenge to the BJP.
And any attempt to overthrow Modi in the next national elections slated for 2024 will require overcoming the various mechanisms that the BJP has already put in place to steer electoral terms in its direction – and any new ideas it has in the next three years.
West Bengal results, emerging amid a coronavirus outbreak that has tarnished the BJP, suggest an opening up to anti-Modi factions. But that Modi and the party even had a chance in a place where it was once considered unthinkable underscores the enormous task of ousting him – and saving Indian democracy from his attempts to undermine it.