NOTICE: In the home state of Narendra Modi, Indian Prime Minister, a person who was half too intelligent would have won the house, but would have lost Gujarat. In March and April, political experts issued the Gujarati proverb as a warning. Modi and his Bharatiya Janata (BJP) party were fighting so fiercely to win the election in another state, West Bengal, that they risked losing a bigger prize. Obsessively focused on the campaign through eight rounds of voting that ended on April 29, they paid no attention as India’s second wave of Covid-19 went from a disturbing swell to a tidal wave. -tide the greatest cataclysm to have struck the country in living memory.
What good would it be if Modi destroyed Mamata Banerjee, the head of the stubborn opposition in West Bengal, if his apparent lack of concern for the growing numbers of people following the pandemic undermined the confidence of the whole country in its leadership .
The country’s confidence is indeed shaken. Every day sees appalling new records, either in the number of new Covid-19 infections or in the number of resulting deaths. Debilitating shortages of oxygen and hospital beds appear to be spreading as the second wave spreads to new areas. Frantic parents of sick patients have to hunt and beg for life-saving treatment, often unsuccessful. As of May 1 alone, official records show 3,689 deaths, and that’s almost certainly a dismal undercount.
To make matters worse, when West Bengal’s votes were counted on May 2, along with those of three other states, Modi didn’t even grasp the advantage for which he jeopardized his national position. As was widely expected, the BJP retained control over one state, Assam (36 million inhabitants). In the two extreme southern states of Kerala (35 million people) and Tamil Nadu (82 million people), he failed to secure a single seat. This rebuff to a party that is strongest in Hindi-speaking northern India was not unusual, but always a setback. In Kerala, voters gave a resounding victory to an alliance of leftists that is viscerally opposed to Modis’ Hindu nationalism, and in Tamil Nadu they defeated the local BJP ally, opting instead for a congressional ally, the historic rival of the BJP in national politics.
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However, it was in West Bengal (91 million inhabitants) that Modi suffered the greatest humiliation. The prime minister himself had organized some 20 giant rallies across the state and devoted immense sums of money and manpower to the struggle. Its closest henchman and electoral supreme, Home Secretary Amit Shah, boldly predicted that the BJP would win more than 200 of the 294 seats in state assemblies. The result was precisely the opposite. The Modis party won only 77 seats. His main opponent, Mamata Banerjees All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) returned home with a 213. Shekhar Gupta, a journalist, describes it as Modis’ biggest electoral defeat in seven years in government.
Why should the loss or rather the failure to capture just one of India’s 28 states be so important? The answer is that not only the BJP, but also its sister organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a sprawling fraternity that underpins the Hindu nationalist movement, has portrayed the contest in West Bengal as a show of force. They wanted a victory to prove that Hindu nationalism could flourish anywhere in India, even in a region where Hindi is not the main language, with a distinct culture and a strong secular tradition.
The TMC has done little to revive the forestry economy in West Bengal. The state is also marked by deep social divisions, especially those between the Hindu majority and a Muslim minority of nearly 30%. Modi has successfully exploited conditions like these over and over again, with on the one hand promises of money, development and progress, and on the other a club to put anti-nationals and Muslims back on their feet. square.
The West Bengal holiday campaign was ugly, even by the often unseemly standards of Indian politics. Shah has repeatedly implied that local Muslims are in fact dangerous Bangladeshi infiltrators who steal Indian jobs. He excoriated Banerjee for appeasing them with handouts. Other party figures publicly rejoiced when Muslim voters were gunned down by police in a crash at a polling station. In a surprising lack of taste during a pandemic, the BJP loudly announced that if elected it would give everyone in the state free vaccines against Covid-19.
None of this seems to have worked. Voters in West Bengal have not turned against the BJP over Modis’ contempt for social distancing amid a pandemic, nor to punish him for his government’s inability to deal with the second wave of illness. Half of the eight rounds of voting in the state took place before the number of infections and deaths began to skyrocket. Many also did not vote for the TMC out of love for the party, which is widely seen as rogue and corrupt. They simply voted to keep the BJP out of power. Muslims, above all, voted strategically, rejecting Islamic parties and abandoning secular alternatives such as Congress and Communists in order to concentrate all their forces in the party most likely to ward off Modi.
As the official Covid-19 toll nears 220,000 on May 2 and the media spread life-threatening images of burning pyres and patients dying at the end of their breath, Modi now faces a fierce backlash beyond Bengal western. Carefully cultivated over three decades in politics, his reputation for dynamism, patriotism and compassion for the little man has been shattered. The problem is not just his government’s inability to anticipate, plan and now deal with India’s devastating second wave. What shocked millions of Indians, including much of his own base, was Modis’ deafness in widespread suffering. At a rally in West Bengal in mid-April, he happily joked about the size of the largely unmasked crowd. As the misery escalated, he seems to have drifted away, avoiding the limelight and commenting on increasingly staid sound bites.
Yet neither the BJP’s electoral setbacks nor the political damage caused by Covid-19 represent immediate threats for Modi. Morning Consult, a political monitor, estimates his popularity ratings have fallen to their lowest level since starting their current term, and by seven points just last month. Yet at 67%, it remains enviable. His party, too, is more resilient than some poor state performance suggests. The BJP is very good at quietly reviewing its mistakes and learning from them, says Kapil Komireddi, author of a book critical of the Modi era. Don’t cancel them. They will work harder.
With three regional leaders strengthened now in the hands of post-election states, and with Modis shaken by the Covid-19 debacle, other regional opposition leaders could be emboldened. The traditional Indian press, largely frightened by money and influence from ruling parties, as well as the cruelty of the Shahs, has also become less cowardly as evidence of government insensitivity and incompetence has grown. impossible to ignore.
But attracting all criticism of Modis into a political force strong enough to challenge him nationally is another matter. The once dominant Indian Congress Party, from which many regional players, including Banerjee, have come, lacks the will and energy to rally and galvanize the opposition. Its leader, Rahul Gandhi, has ironically been prophetic about Covid-19, repeatedly and precisely berating Modi for not taking the threat seriously enough. But Gandhi is not backed by an efficient machine, and as a descendant of a venerable political dynasty, he remains vulnerable to Modis’ anti-elitist grudges. He interferes with the message by being the messenger, says Komireddi.
2020 The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist released under license. The original article can be found at www.economist.com
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