India elections: Modi party defeated in West Bengal battleground
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party has failed to win a key state in elections held amid record Covid-19 deaths and cases.
The BJP targeted West Bengal heavily during campaigning but it was comfortably held by the incumbent, Mamata Banerjee, a fierce Modi critic.
Mr Modi has been accused of focusing on polls rather than the pandemic.
Elections also went ahead in Assam, Tamil Nadu and Kerala states as well as the territory of Puducherry.
The party held power in the north-eastern state of Assam but failed to make major gains elsewhere.
For 10 straight days, daily cases in the country have topped 300,000. It recorded more than 360,000 new cases and 3,417 deaths on Monday. On Sunday, India set a new record for daily deaths, with 3,689 recorded. Hospitals are facing dire shortages of beds and medical oxygen, with many Indians resorting to desperate pleas on social media to secure help.
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Campaign rallies and voting have been blamed for the surge in cases.
Mr Modi and his home minister made dozens of speeches in West Bengal and were accused of focusing on the polls rather than the pandemic.
What happened in West Bengal?
With almost all the results counted, the Trinamool Congress party (TMC) led by the state’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has won more than 200 seats in the 294-seat assembly.
The results are set to make Ms Banerjee the leader of West Bengal for a third time. She is also India’s only woman chief minister.
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Celebrating the win, she said West Bengal had “saved” India with the result and tackling Covid-19 would be her first priority.
Victory was soured by the loss of her seat in Nandigram to a former aide turned BJP defector. She has said she will challenge the result in court but may have to run again to remain chief minister.
West Bengal, home to 90 million people and the city of Kolkata, is of particular interest to election watchers. It is one of the few states that have never been ruled by Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP.
Despite the defeat, this vote saw the BJP win nearly 80 seats to become the main opposition party. In the 2016 vote, the party had won just three seats there.
Although assembly elections were held in five Indian states, the real battle was over West Bengal.
The BJP had pulled out all stops for electioneering, with PM Narendra Modi leading its campaign from the front.
To enhance his appeal further to the Bengali voter, he had grown his beard long, with his supporters drawing comparisons with the state’s much loved icon — Nobel Prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore.
But in the end, it all came to nothing.
At a time when a deadly second wave of coronavirus swept India and led thousands of Indians across the country to beg for hospital beds and oxygen cylinders, Mr Modi’s frequent visits to the state to address huge rallies were called out for being a major failure of his prime ministerial duties.
So Mamata Banerjee fought back anti-incumbency, BJP’s mammoth election machinery, last-minute desertions from within her own party, and a largely unfriendly media to return for a third term.
Congratulating Ms Banerjee in a tweet, Mr Modi also noted, “From a negligible presence earlier [in West Bengal], BJP’s presence has significantly increased.”
Leader of the opposition Congress party Rahul Gandhi congratulated Ms Banerjee for “soundly defeating the BJP” even though his party lost a significant number of seats in the state.
Social media was flooded with memes and posts about the success of “Didi” — a nickname for Ms Banerjee meaning older sister.
Voting in the state was held in eight phases over a month. The Election Commission is facing a great deal of criticism for refusing to reduce the number of phases and make campaigning virtual. Critics have accused the commission of being controlled by the BJP.
A number of congratulatory tweets noted that the TMC had won “despite” the commission.
As well as the north-eastern states of West Bengal and Assam, there has been voting in the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the South Indian union territory of Puducherry, and local council elections in some parts of Uttar Pradesh in the north and Telangana in the south.
In Tamil Nadu, the main regional opposition party, the DMK, took power. A left-wing coalition retained power in Kerala, while a BJP-led alliance won no seats.
On top of the coronavirus pandemic, some analysts saw the results as showing the limits of the BJP’s rhetoric in states with sizeable Muslim populations.
What are India’s latest Covid figures?
India has recorded more than 19 million cases of coronavirus — second only to the US. It has also confirmed more than 218,000 deaths, though the real toll is thought to be far higher.
Experts have cited low testing rates and the number of people dying at home, especially in rural areas, as contributing factors to under-reported figures.
The country’s previous highest daily death toll, also reported this week, was 3,645.
Brazil and the US have both registered daily tolls of more than 4,000 during the course of the pandemic.
In India, distressing images of families begging for hospital beds and life-saving supplies have been emerging for more than 10 days, while morgues and crematoriums remain overwhelmed.
The harrowing scenes from India have shocked the world, as the country struggles with soaring cases of Covid.
But the outbreak isn’t just a crisis for India — it’s a crisis for everyone.
“The virus doesn’t respect borders, or nationalities, or age, or sex or religion,” says Dr Soumya Swaminathan, the World Health Organization’s chief scientist.
“And what’s playing out in India now unfortunately has been played out in other countries.”
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The pandemic has revealed just how interconnected the world is. And if a country has very high levels of infection, then it’s likely to spread to other countries.
Even with travel restrictions, multiple tests and quarantine, infections can still leak out; and if a traveller has come from somewhere where the virus is very prevalent, they have a higher chance of taking the virus with them. On a recent flight from New Delhi to Hong Kong about 50 passengers tested positive for Covid-19.
But there’s another concern with India’s high infection rates: variants.
A new variant has emerged in India called B.1.617. It’s been dubbed by some as the “double mutant” because of two key mutations on the spike of the virus. There’s some lab evidence that suggests it’s slightly more transmissible and that antibodies may find it harder to block the virus, but scientists are still assessing how much immunity is lost.
“I don’t think there’s any evidence that it’s an escape mutation [which would mean] it fundamentally can’t be stopped by the vaccines,” Dr Jeff Barrett, director of the Covid-19 Genomics Initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, told BBC News.
“I think we have to obviously watch carefully, but there’s at present no reason to panic about it.”
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But the higher the number of Covid cases a country has, the more likely it is that new variants will emerge. That’s because every single infection gives the virus a chance to evolve and a major concern is that mutations could arise that render vaccines ineffective.
“The way to limit viral variants emerging in the first place is to prevent the virus replicating in us… so the best way to control variants is actually to control the global amount of disease that we have at the moment,” explains Prof Sharon Peacock, Director of the Covid-19 Genomics UK consortium (Cog-UK).
Lockdowns and social distancing measures will do this — but vaccination is also vital.
This is happening slowly in India: so far less than 10% of its population have had the first dose of the vaccine and less than 2% are fully vaccinated.
This is despite the fact that it’s home to the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturer — the Serum Institute of India. And this is another reason why India’s surge in cases has a knock-on effect for the rest of the world.
In March, as infections in India started to surge, authorities there halted large exports of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.
That included vaccines for the UN-backed Covax scheme to provide doses to low and middle-income countries. On Monday, the Global Vaccine Alliance (Gavi), which is a partner in the scheme, said it was waiting to hear when supplies from India would resume.
This will certainly impact on vaccination roll-outs in many countries. But it means more of India’s vaccines are diverted for domestic use, while it tries to ramp up production.
And with India’s dire situation, scientists say this is a priority.
“We really need to double down on vaccination as quickly as possible or the virus is going to try and do everything it can to keep on spreading from person to person,” says Swaminathan.
Globally, the pandemic shows no sign of easing, with the virus devastating country after country.
The situation in India is a bleak reminder that none of us will be safe until everyone is safe.