Modi trails in key state poll as India’s Covid-19 wave surges

Most of the votes were cast in March but polling in some constituencies continued through April. PHOTO: REUTERS

KOLKATA (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - India Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party is trailing in a key state election that is seen as a test of his popularity and an indication of whether the backlash over his government's mishandling of the country's Covid-19 emergency will hurt him at the ballot box.

In West Bengal, incumbent Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's All India Trinamool Congress was ahead in 137 seats, while Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party was leading in 70, according to initial trends posted on the website of Election Commission of India.

The BJP was leading in the northeastern state of Assam. In southern state of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, Modi's opponents were ahead, while in the federally-controlled territory of Puducherry, there was no clear trend yet.

The coronavirus pandemic has overshadowed the five assembly elections, and Modi is facing growing criticism over his decision to continue campaigning in front of huge crowds in the battleground state of West Bengal as infections were spiraling.

India's fierce second wave has overwhelmed the nation's underfunded health system, with infections hitting a record daily high of 401,993 on Saturday in another global record and hospitals running out of beds, oxygen and medical supplies.

While India is the world's biggest producer of Covid-19 vaccines, shortages of the shots in some states have hindered the start of a mass vaccination drive.

The death toll continues to mount and images of crematoriums working non-stop have flooded newspapers, television and social media.

The elections in Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry were held in March and early April and the vote count is scheduled to end on Sunday (May 2), with results to be announced once the tallies are done.

Most of the votes were cast in March but polling in some constituencies continued through April, just as India started detecting thousands of fresh coronavirus infections every day.

Sunday's vote count comes a day after 12 patients including one senior doctor died when a hospital in the capital New Delhi ran out of oxygen - the third such incident in the last 10 days - after sending out desperate calls for help hours earlier.

The federal government has also been accused of failing to respond to a warning in early March from its own scientific advisers that a new and more contagious variant was taking hold in the country.

Raising alarm

"We have been raising this kind of alarm to the government, because it is an ongoing situation that is worsening everyday," Sudhanshu Bankata, the executive director of the Batra Hospital, said by phone.

Delhi's Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said Saturday his administration had told both the courts and the federal government that the state required 976 metric tonnes of oxygen per day but had only been allotted 490 metric tonnes.

"Then how are things supposed to work out?" Kejriwal said in a statement Saturday. "Delhi needs oxygen."

The BJP used these elections to try to expand its footprint in the country's east and south. In West Bengal it was on a war footing to try and unseat Modi's main challenger, the regional leader Banerjee.

"These results may not dent Modi's popularity, though the handling of the pandemic could," said Sandeep Shastri, a political analyst and vice-chancellor at the Jagran Lakecity University at Bhopal.

"Going forward the handling of the pandemic has the potential to occupy centre stage in an assessment of the federal government."

The biggest challenge post election will be for the main opposition Congress party, which ruled India for decades, Shastri said, given it failed to win back either Assam or Kerala.

"The party would gradually lose its position as a nucleus of the anti-BJP political force and Rahul Gandhi's role will surely come under fire," he said, referring to the party's former president and the son of the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.