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India’s ruling party lost a key election. It’s worrying that it even stood a chance.

The 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.

Supporters of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) celebrate victory in the 2021 West Bengal Legislative Assembly Election.
Avishek Das/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

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.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi Addresses Campaign Rally For West Bengal Assembly Election At Barasat
Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at a rally in West Bengal on April 12, 2021.
Samir Jana/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

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 TMC, every other party was demolished, including Congress, the BJP’s leading national rival.

“Even in decisive loss today, Modi’s party has emerged as the main challenger for power” in West Bengal, writes Bhuvan Bagga, a South Asia correspondent for Agence France-Presse — an astonishing development in such a traditionally left-leaning state, where the TMC’s main opponents are traditionally Congress and communists.

For this reason, some BJP opponents are greeting the West Bengal results with more relief than jubilation, a feeling that a disaster was averted rather than a major victory won.

“The counterblast from Bengal comes in the throes of a spiralled authoritarianism; it is marauding and it is untrammelled,” writes Sankarthan Thakur, the national affairs editor of the Telegraph (an Indian newspaper). “More than once in our recent past the baton of challenge has been picked [by the opposition], more than once has it been dropped.”

But other experts on Indian politics think the scope of BJP’s defeat is noteworthy — and that it could prove to have real significance for the country’s political trajectory.

First, they point out, the West Bengal results actually suggest the BJP’s strength in the state is weakening, not rising. In 2019, India held national parliamentary elections that the BJP dominated. In that contest, the party won a notably larger percentage of the West Bengal vote than it did in 2021: Had the 2019 percentage held steady, the BJP would have won 121 state assembly seats, about 40 percent more than it actually won in 2021. That’s a steep decline in two years.

Second, the West Bengal election is not a one-off. In a series of other notable state elections, including a 2019 contest in Maharashtra (home to the megacity Mumbai) and a 2020 election in Delhi (home to the capital New Delhi), the party has either lost power or underperformed expectations. “Between 2019 and 2021, the BJP has struggled in most state elections,” says Rahul Verma, a fellow at the nonpartisan Center for Policy Research think tank in New Delhi.

Third, the effectiveness of the TMC’s campaign strategy pointed to potential weaknesses in the BJP’s political coalition.

West Bengal Assembly Polls 2021
TMC leader Mamata Banerjee celebrating her party’s victory during a May 2 press conference.
Debajyoti Chakraborty/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Modi’s party thrives on religious polarization; its basic strategy is to unite India’s Hindu majority by scapegoating the Muslim minority. Since India is an 80 percent Hindu country, sheer math means that successfully polarizing the country on communal lines works in the party’s favor. But Banerjee, the TMC’s leader, successfully splintered the Hindu vote by appealing to the poor and women. By skillfully hammering on gender and class inequality, the TMC set up a strategy that could prove a model for other opposition parties.

“What the TMC showed is that there’s a version of pro-poor welfare politics, and pro-female politics, which essentially work as cross-cutting currents with Hindu-Muslim polarization,” Sircar tells me. “The BJP has an undefended flank when it comes to the poor. If a political actor is able to really take this up, it can really do damage to the BJP.”

Fourth, and finally, the results show that even a concerted BJP effort to win an election — using all of its unfair advantages — can fall short.

Throughout the country, Modi has embraced a series of policies that are designed to enhance his and his party’s political power — arresting peaceful protesters on sedition charges, punishing critical media by cutting off vital advertising dollars, and rewriting campaign finance rules to give itself unfair access to dark money. In a 2021 report, V-Dem, the leading quantitative assessment of global democracy, downgraded India from a democracy to an “electoral autocracy.”

“There are questions about how free and fair elections are that we haven’t seen in decades,” Milan Vaishnav, an expert on India at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me before the West Bengal results were announced.

In that campaign, the ostensibly neutral Election Commission of India scheduled an unusual 34-day voting period that seemed designed to allow the BJP to bring its much greater resources to bear — one of several questionable decisions in recent elections that favored the ruling party.

As the Covid-19 outbreak worsened, the commission refused to shut down mass campaign rallies until the BJP had already voluntarily halted them. And it refused to seriously punish BJP leaders for clear instances of hate speech during the campaign, which is nominally prohibited under Indian law. It was all so bad that Prashant Kishor, the TMC’s lead political strategist, argued with real justification that the commission “behaved like an arm of the powers in Delhi.”

Despite all of this, the BJP lost in a state where it went all-in, attempting to influence the outcome by legitimate and illegitimate means alike. And not only did it lose, but it lost by a much larger than expected margin. This is a welcome sign in a country where the health of democracy remains tenuous at best.

“The kind of command and control over resources the BJP has is unprecedented,” says Verma. “What the Bengal results tell us is that both elections and democratic politics happen in a way where resources give you advantages, but this cannot ensure victory.”

Coronavirus, West Bengal, and the threats to Modi’s power

The West Bengal elections are, in key ways, intertwined with the biggest story in India (and arguably one of the biggest stories in the world) right now: the country’s coronavirus outbreak.

The situation is grim, both nationally and in West Bengal. Just before the election, India recorded a new national high of 3,689 deaths in a single 24-hour period. In Kolkata, West Bengal’s capital and largest city, the test positivity rate is around 50 percent.

The election itself seems to have contributed to the outbreak — one Indian court accused the Election Commission of being “singularly responsible for the second wave of Covid,” adding that its leadership “should probably be booked for murder.”

“There is no doubt that the election process led to the spread of corona in West Bengal,” Punyabrata Goon, a physician in West Bengal, told the publication “Till February and March, Bengal had the disease under control. But as campaigning started with large crowds and people coming in from affected states, cases started shooting up.”

It’s not clear whether this surge hurt the BJP at the West Bengal ballot box. On the one hand, quite a lot of votes were cast before the local case count spiked. On the other, there’s some early evidence — per calculations by Ashoka political scientist Gilles Verniers — that the BJP significantly underperformed in later stages of the election when the outbreak was happening.

This points to a bigger question hanging over Indian politics right now: To what extent will the government’s Covid-19 failures exacerbate the political vulnerabilities on display in West Bengal, creating a true political threat to Modi’s power?

There is little doubt that the government’s approach to the outbreak has played a major role in the current surge. Writing in Nature, a leading scientific journal, journalist T.V. Padma paints a dire and clear picture of a too-swift, politically motivated reopening.

“As late as March, the government repeatedly boasted that results from serological surveys and from India’s main computer model predicting disease spread showed that the country was in the ‘endgame’ of the pandemic. By then, shopping centres, restaurants and theatres had reopened across the country,” she writes. “Public-health experts had been warning that the fight against the pandemic was not over, that better data were needed and precautionary measures were warranted. They went unheard. Their arguments did not fit the government’s narrative that the pandemic was under control.”

India’s Covid-19 Crisis Intensifes
A medical worker at an impromptu vaccination center in New Delhi on May 4.
Rebecca Conway/Getty Images

Once the surge began, a series of other failures affected the government’s response — a disaster that the writer Arundhati Roy has labeled “a crime against humanity.” There have been severe shortages of oxygen, ICU beds, and Covid-management drugs like remdesivir. The vaccination campaign has been sluggish, with only 2 percent of India’s population fully vaccinated as of April 30. Official statistics are badly inaccurate, almost certainly understating case and death counts by a significant factor.

Through it all, the government has been working to control information that makes it look bad. It has strong-armed Twitter and Facebook into banning posts critical of government policy.

In other countries, this sort of failure seems to have hurt Modi-style right-wing populists. The Trump campaign’s internal data suggested that his handling of Covid-19 contributed to his 2020 defeat. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro’s poll numbers have dropped as the country sees an outbreak second in scope only to India’s. Even Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, one of the most effective in this cohort at consolidating power, has seen his position weaken amid the worst per capita death rates in the world.

“What will happen to Modi will be determined by what he and his party do on the Covid crunch,” says Verma.

All that said, it’s important not to overstate Modi’s weaknesses.

He remains, personally, quite popular. His party’s support in key regions, especially populous northern India, remains strong. The leading national opposition party, Congress, is weak and rudderless; it’s not clear whether regional parties like the TMC can unite with Congress and present a serious nationwide challenge to the BJP.

And any attempt to topple Modi in the next national elections, scheduled for 2024, will require overcoming the various mechanisms the BJP has already created for tilting the electoral playing field in its direction — and whatever new ideas it comes up with in the next three years.

The West Bengal results, coming amid a coronavirus outbreak that has tarnished the BJP, suggests an opening for anti-Modi factions. But that Modi and the party even had a chance in a place where it was once considered unthinkable underscores the enormity of the task of unseating him — and saving Indian democracy from his attempts to subvert it.

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