India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi suffered a resounding defeat in a key state election on Sunday, indicating his Hindu nationalist party’s political strength may be slipping as the country struggles to contain an unprecedented surge in coronavirus cases.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was unable to dislodge West Bengal state’s firebrand chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, after a hard-fought campaign.
On Sunday night, Mr Modi took to Twitter to congratulate his rival’s win.
He wrote: “The Centre will continue to extend all possible support to the West Bengal Government to fulfill people’s aspirations and also to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic.”
His party also failed to win in two southern states, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. But the BJP secured a second term in the northeastern state of Assam and an alliance with regional parties led it to victory in the union territory of Puducherry.
Following the disappointing results, Mr Modi stands weakened but faces no threats to staying on as prime minister until his term ends in 2024.
Political analyst Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay said: “The BJP started running out of steam as the pandemic spread.
“The verdict in West Bengal state will definitely weaken Mr Modi’s position,” he added, but cautioned that the results needed to be studied further to determine how much they were a referendum on the BJP’s handling of Covid-19.
In West Bengal, Banerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress picked up 213 seats out of 292, while the BJP secured 77, according to the Election Commission of India. Two went to other parties.
Supporters of the All India Trinamool Congress party — many without masks and ignoring social distancing guidelines — held victory celebrations and set off firecrackers in West Bengal after initial results were released.
Health experts say the massive electoral rallies and marches held as voters cast their ballots in March and April are partly to blame for the subsequent spike in Covid-19 infections.
Public anger for allowing the elections to go forward despite the risk has been directed at both Mr Modi’s government and the Election Commission.
Last week, the High Court in Tamil Nadu state slammed the Election Commission for allowing crowded campaigns in the middle of the pandemic.
India’s daily new virus cases began rising past 100,000 in late March, and above 300,000 daily new cases on April 21, collapsing India’s tattered health care system.
Polly Roy, a professor of virology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said last week that India’s extremely dense population and the government’s lax rules about election rallies and religious gatherings fuelled the outbreak.
Experts have also blamed new, more contagious virus variants.