India’s ruling party just lost a key election. It’s worrying that they even stood a chance.
Supporters of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) celebrate victory in the 2021 West Bengal Legislative Assembly Election. | Avishek Das/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty ImagesThe defeat in the state of West Bengal, together with the coronavirus crisis, exposes Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s weak points. But the election also hints at the authoritarian’s enduring strengths. For the past few years, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a far-right Hindu nationalist faction, have dominated national politics. Since coming into power in 2014, Modi and BJP have attacked the foundations of India’s political system, gradually undermining the guardrails protecting democracy.
But this weekend saw a notable setback for Modi: an electoral defeat by a larger-than-expected margin.
In local elections held in five states, the BJP lost the biggest prize: control of the Legislative Assembly in West Bengal. The defeat came amid gathering signs of trouble for Modi’s quest to dominate India — the world’s worst Covid-19 outbreak, attributable in no small part to government policy, foremost among them.
A large and diverse cultural hub ruled by a communist faction for three decades, West Bengal can roughly be understood as India’s California. The BJP under Modi is a bit like the GOP under Donald Trump, only far more popular and politically effective. This anti-Muslim faction winning control of the local government in a left-wing bastion would have been a sign that its efforts to snuff out the political opposition had been successful, and that Indian democracy was going further down the path of its deceased cousins in Turkey, Hungary, and Venezuela.
Pre-election reporting suggested the BJP had a real shot at defeating incumbent Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her left-wing Trinamool Congress party (TMC). The national party poured resources into the fight; Modi held a number of large campaign rallies in the state, while India’s Election Commission tilted the rules of the contest in its favor, scheduling the vote in a way that facilitated BJP campaigning and turnout in BJP strongholds.
Yet results released on Sunday showed that Modi‘s gambit had fallen short: The current count shows the TMC holding a supermajority in West Bengal’s parliament, around 213 seats out of 294. The BJP, which some exit polls suggested would win outright, will hold fewer than 80.
Though this is a significant improvement on the party’s showing in the last state elections, held in 2016, it’s well below pre-election expectations. Given the context — West Bengal is really hostile territory for the BJP — experts on Indian politics disagree on just how bad this result is for the BJP. Even though the party lost, some experts say, the fact that the BJP is the main opposition party in a place like West Bengal — something that couldn’t have been expected just a few years ago — underscores Modi’s enduring strengths.
But many also see the results as the latest in a string of setbacks that the party has experienced recently: the Covid-19 outbreak, defeats in prior state elections, and mass protests against government policy.
“Since 2019, a lot of stuff hasn’t gone right for this government,” says Neelanjan Sircar, a political scientist at Ashoka University. “Systemic dominance requires you to prove your dominance. And when you can’t prove your dominance, you’re in a bad position.”
The coronavirus context also matters.
The BJP campaign in West Bengal held mass rallies amid rising case counts in the state. There’s some statistical evidence that the campaign helped turn the West Bengal outbreak into the fastest-growing anywhere in the entire country by the time results were being tabulated.
Samir Jana/Hindustan Times/Getty Images
Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at a rally in West Bengal on April 12, 2021.And arguably, the Modi government bears the lion’s share of responsibility for the national outbreak; the prime minister declared “victory” over Covid-19 in January and relaxed stringent restrictions, allowing the virus to spread at a dangerous clip.
Together, these two events suggest an opening for the fractured Indian opposition. West Bengal shows that Modi can be beaten even when he stacks the deck in his favor; the government’s failures on the outbreak shift the public’s focus away from Modi’s messaging and toward a concrete policy where Modi has failed.
Yet the fact that Modi and the BJP did as well as they did in an opposition stronghold indicates just how much sway he and the party continue to have. Indian democracy is still in deep trouble, beset by a remarkably popular and charismatic prime minister with a clear authoritarian bent.
Why West Bengal matters
On the face of it, the results in West Bengal could easily be seen as a success for the BJP.
In the 2016 state elections, the party only won three seats in the state assembly; in 2021, it looks likely to hold around 77 — more than 25 times that number. Other than the
May 4, 2021 - VOX
Supporters of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) celebrate victory in the 2021 West Bengal Legislative Assembly Election. | Avishek Das/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty ImagesThe defeat in the state of West Bengal, together with the coronavirus crisis, exposes Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s weak points. But the election also hints at the authoritarian’s enduring strengths. For the past few years, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a far-right Hindu nationalist faction,..