Since elections are held every year in some part of India, the state elections in West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry were seen as yet another component of India’s electoral democratic cycle. But these elections have much greater significance than usual. The polls happened in the backdrop of a turbulent time in national politics, where structural changes are happening. The polls also took place in the midst of a worrying Covid-19 second wave that has exposed India’s inadequate and creaky healthcare infrastructure.
While the country is battling the turbulent virus surge that’s showing no signs of abating yet, the results of the four state and one Union Territory elections will not only determine the trajectory of India’s national and regional parties and their politics but also have an impact on national politics, especially Opposition politics, by giving a new life to an anti-BJP front. So, while reading the numbers and the message from voters to winners and losers, it is also important to consider the Covid numbers, which have cast a shadow on the poll verdict.
Multiple opinion polls had projected a win for the NDA in Assam and Puducherry; the DMK-Congress alliance was projected to sweep Tamil Nadu and the Left Front was expected to retain Kerala, while West Bengal, that witnessed a bitter fight, was projected to go the way of Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress. But ground reports that came during the multi-phase elections from Bengal and Assam also suggested that the BJP was all set to gain massive ground in West Bengal, while Assam was going to be a close race between the alliances led by the BJP and Congress.
However, a plethora of exit poll projections that were released on Thursday projected a slim margin between TMC and BJP. Except for West Bengal where pollsters made varying projections with some predicting a victory for TMC while others projecting a neck-and-neck battle between TMC and BJP, exit poll projections for other states were more or less in line with the opinion polls.
But West Bengal turned out to be a huge surprise. It has proved every pollster wrong, while proving election strategist and TMC aide Prashant Kishor absolutely right. As far back as in December 2019, he had said that the BJP would struggle to cross double digits and in case it did, he would quit his job as an election strategist. In the ‘Khela Hobe’ challenge that Kishor threw at the BJP, the TMC has not only achieved a remarkable feat by scoring over 200 seats, but the BJP, despite its best efforts and massive resources at its disposal, has just managed to finish at 76 seats.
The fact that the BJP did poorer than its 2019 Lok Sabha performance in Bengal means that Mamata and Kishor understood Bengal’s ground reality better than the Chanakyas of the BJP. Home minister Amit Shah’s claim of 200 seats was mainly aimed at creating a pre-poll perception that the BJP would win Bengal. But many people knew that Bengal would be a very tough battle for the BJP to win.
Regional satraps rule
While the DMK-Congress combine has done exceedingly well in Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK has also done better than pollsters’ predictions. Contrary to the expectations that Assam would be a neck-and-neck battle, it’s been a fairly easy ride for the BJP-led alliance to victory in the north-eastern state. In Kerala, the LDF has done remarkably well to retain the state. The larger message that comes out of the poll results is: as the Congress has failed once again to provide a credible opposition to the BJP, regional leaders – Mamata Banerjee, M K Stalin and P Vijayan – have held their forts against the might of BJP’s poll machinery and resources.
Another obvious but important message is: communal polarisation has its limits and does not work everywhere. The third message is that the BJP, notwithstanding its all-out assault to win every election, can be defeated if its opponent/s does not give up the fight till the end. This message could possibly revitalise the Opposition, which could set the tone for the all-important UP polls early next year. As the Congress continues to fade out in important states, it remains to be seen whether the latest round of elections hold the blueprint for national Opposition unity prior to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
Now, to the coronavirus numbers: as the curtains have finally come down on elections, it is imperative to look at the human cost of the polls. Statistics show that the Covid-19 virus surged in West Bengal and in other states, as hectic campaigning continued and health warnings by experts were ignored. Despite an exponential surge in cases, election rallies and roadshows went on uninterrupted, while, quite surprisingly, the ruling establishment at the Centre reportedly rejected the idea of a link to the rise in infections.
India’s daily cases began to rise at the end of February after falling steadily from mid-September 2020. They picked up sharply in March and reached record highs in April, as their rate of growth outpaced the rate seen in the first wave last year. This caused a massive health emergency across the country – lack of hospital beds, massive shortage of medical oxygen, medicine and hundreds of deaths.
When an anguished high court was forced to say that perhaps the Election Commission (EC) should face murder charges that the EC stepped in with a fresh set of protocols for election rallies. It was too late and too little because on April 22, daily Covid infections had risen to over 3.22 lakh from one lakh cases a day on April 4.
April 22 was also the day when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP’s star campaigner in Bengal, called off his election meeting scheduled for the next day to take stock of the Covid second wave. It was again too little and too late, as the Prime Minister, who was visibly immersed in the Bengal poll campaign, pulled out of it only after the rising infection rate had gone completely out of control. This raises an important question: did the government abandon its responsibility towards the nation in the second wave of the pandemic till the Covid crisis turned into a nightmare for people?
It was only after states like Gujarat, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh etc. were indicted by the courts for mishandling of the Covid crisis, while the Central government was seen doing little to control the climbing distress to people, that the focus changed from elections to containing the pandemic’s deadly surge. What was clearly evident through March and April was the administration’s inability to see the second wave coming, despite global evidence of a similar thing happening in the US and UK.
What was also obvious is lack of planning to prepare for the challenges of a massive medical emergency that unfolded over the last two weeks. With a positivity rate at more than 10 per cent, nearly four lakh new cases a day and deaths in thousands, India is clearly in the midst of the worst crisis created by a combination of incompetence and bad governance.
Now that the elections are over, will the BJP give up its singular focus on electoral success and turn its attention to the biggest national crisis, called the pandemic?
The author is an independent senior journalist