Posted by: John Elliott | May 3, 2021

Modi’s BJP fails to win West Bengal

Over-long election campaign continued during Covid surge

Mamata Banerjee sets an example to other opposition parties

Narendra Modi has lost his bid to extend the Bharatiya Janata Party’s power to West Bengal after leading a high profile and unnecessarily long state assembly election campaign, where he addressed mammoth unprotected political rallies as the Covid surge swept across the country. 

This diverted him from running the national government at a key time in the pandemic that is now producing record official numbers of some 360,000-400,000 new cases a day and 3,500-4,000 deaths.

The human tragedies stem from the national and state governments failing to prepare for a new surge. They then allowed large scale rallies and a religious festival to take place, which acted as super-spreaders and influenced opinion against mask wearing and distancing.

The Trinamool Congress (TMC), a state-based party led by Mamata Banerjee, which has been in power since 2011, won in West Bengal winning 213 seats in the 294–seat assembly. Banerjee narrowly lost her seat and will need to be stand in a by-election, unless there is a recount, which has so far been refused.

Mamata Banerjee campaigning after injuring her leg

The BJP won just 77 seats, though that was a significant improvement on its tally of just three seats in 2016 state election. It did well in the 2019 general election after extensive use of social media and substantial groundwork done by its allied organisations.

For Modi and his close associate, home minister Amit Shah, the primary focus since the end of last year has been to drive Banerjee out of power and demonstrate that the BJP is continuing to win new territories for its Hindu nationalist creed. They undermined her organisation by poaching its leaders and launched vicious personal attacks in their speeches.

Together they spoke at some 70 rallies during a five-week campaign of eight phases, with Modi only calling off his electioneering and returning to Delhi on April 22 when India’s daily total of new Covid cases topped 350,000. 

Critics say the campaign could have been much shorter, which could have lessened the rallies’ role as super-spreaders. But, they allege, the Election Commission arranged the eight phases to allow Modi time to visit every area just before voting day. 

Prasant Kishore, a professional election strategist who has advised many parties and politicians including Modi, managed the TMC’s successful campaign. Speaking on television channels as the votes were being counted, he accused India’s officially independent Election Commission of being “completely partial and an extension of the BJP”. It gave the BJP “systemic support”.

He also suggested that Modi and Shah had over-estimated the potential impact of their polarised campaign, dividing Hindus and the minority Muslims. “Polarisation can motivate 40 to 50% of the vote, and that is what they got, not the 70% that they would have liked,” said Kishore. 

India Today tv during the count .

For the BJP to have failed to win after its high profile campaign significantly dents Modi’s reputation as an iconic vote winner at the same time that he and his government are being criticised in India and abroad for mishandling the Covid crisis.

Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, the foreign minister, held a virtual meeting with India’s ambassadors on April 28, telling them to counter the international media’s “negative” and “one-sided” reports. On Twitter, he said that the crisis has “strengthened global solidarity with India”.

The West Bengal result (analysis here) will encourage regional parties opposed to the BJP to strengthen their activities. The opposition lacks a national leader because of the Congress Party’s faltering Gandhi dynasty. Banerjee could now act as a rallying point for other regional parties, though she seems unlikely to make it herself as a national leader.

Often called Didi (elder sister in Bengali), she is a feisty 66-year old populist politician who spent part of the campaign ostentatiously in a wheel chair after injuring her leg.

Amit Shah campaigning on April 19

The TMC is built around her personality, without much structure or any distinctive political creed. In 2011, she ousted West Bengal’s Communist-led Left Front that had been in power for 34 years, and now she has defeated the rightist BJP. 

Originally in the Congress, she broke away and formed the TMC in 1998 and went on to become chief minister in 2011. She has been a national minister for railways and for coal and mines under both Congress and BJP prime ministers.

The BJP also failed to do well in results of other state elections announced today, winning only in Assam. 

In Tamil Nadu, where the contest was between two state-level parties, the staunchly pro-Tamil DMK defeated the incumbent AIADMK that has been in power for ten years and has the BJP as an ally. The DMK is opposed to the BJP’s Hinduvta policy. It wants jobs protected for Tamils and sustained teaching of the Tamil language.

In neighbouring Kerala, a Communist-led coalition, which has managed the pandemic better than most states, was re-elected, defeating a coalition that included the Congress. The BJP won no seats.

Overall, the day’s results show that the BJP’s crushing tactics do not always work. Communist parties are now virtually wiped out in West Bengal (they won only one seat) and exist only in Kerala, and the Congress has failed yet again to matter.


  1. […] was exacerbated by Modi’s failure to act quickly enough in April when he was electioneering in West Bengal, leading to official (understated) figures for new cases rising to a peak of over 400,000 a day and […]

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