Indian PM Narendra Modi's Hindu right-wing party BJP fails to strengthen its stranglehold in several eastern and southern states where elections were held in the shadow of coronavirus crisis.

A supporter of chief of Trinamool Congress, Mamata Banerjee, gestures during celebrations after the initial poll results in Kolkata, India, on May 2, 2021.
A supporter of chief of Trinamool Congress, Mamata Banerjee, gestures during celebrations after the initial poll results in Kolkata, India, on May 2, 2021. (Reuters)

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party has failed to strengthen its stranglehold in elections held in several eastern and southern states under the shadow of the coronavirus crisis.

The incumbent chief minister's party in India's West Bengal state defeated Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in a state election held as the coronavirus pandemic surged to crisis levels.

Mamata Banerjee, 66, is set to be the chief of West Bengal for the third time after her Trinamool Congress party (TMC) won a two-thirds majority, taking more than 200 seats in the 294-seat state assembly, election commission officials said. 

Final counting for some seats was still under way on Sunday.

Banerjee is now India's only woman chief minister.

Despite the defeat, Modi's BJP made substantial gains, making it the main opposition party as its tally in the state legislature went to nearly 80 seats from just three seats won in 2016.

Modi, his colleagues and regional politicians campaigned aggressively in five state elections despite the pandemic.

The results are seen as a test of the impact the pandemic's second wave is having on support for him and his right-wing BJP.

One-woman campaign

Banerjee, a sharp critic of Modi, largely conducted a one-woman campaign to retain power by leading scores of public rallies.

"It is a stupendous performance by Mamata Banerjee because Modi was determined to win Bengal, but it's clear that his entire political machinery and strategy was unable to defeat her," said Diptendu Bhaskar, a political analyst in Kolkata, West Bengal 's capital.

In a victory speech later Sunday, Banerjee said West Bengal's "immediate challenge is to combat the Covid-19 and we are confident that we will win".

"This victory has saved the humanity, the people of India. It's the victory of India," Banerjee, a fierce critic of Modi, added.

Modi tweeted his congratulations but added that his party had grown its support in the state "from a negligible presence earlier".

Banerjee lost her seat in Nandigram, to a former confidant who defected to Modi's BJP.

BJP loses elsewhere 

In Assam state, the BJP managed to retain political power. In Tamil Nadu, the DMK — the main regional opposition party — secured victory.

In Kerala state, the ruling lefist political party was set to form government while the BJP led-alliance won no seats. 

In the union territory of Puducherry, the All India NR Congress-led alliance was leading in 14 of the 30 seats assembly.

READ MORE: India censors critical tweets as Covid-19 crisis escalates

Referendum on Modi's Covid policy?

Since voted to power in New Delhi in 2014, Modi's party has gained ascendancy in most Hindu-dominated areas in the north and central India and is now trying to gain a foothold in east and south to win a consecutive third term in the 2024 national elections.  

It also was taken as a referendum on the BJP's Covid-19 management.

Hundreds of thousands of supporters of various political parties took part in massive rallies and street marches before the voting in the four states held in the past month, completely ignoring social-distancing protocols.

As the voting took place in eight phases from March 27 to April 29, the massive upsurge in infections rose from 100,000 to above 300,000 a day across the country.

"The BJP started running out steam as the pandemic spread," said political analyst Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay.

"The verdict in West Bengal state will definitely weaken Modi’s position,” he said, but added that further study of the results was needed in order to say how much this was a referendum on the BJP’s handling of the Covid-19 outbreak.

READ MORE: Here is what you need to know about India's Covid-19 B.1.617 variant

India's new coronavirus cases dipped marginally on Sunday but deaths jumped by a record 3,689, as the nation's creaky healthcare system is unable to cope with the massive caseload.

Authorities reported 392,488 new cases in the previous 24 hours, pushing total cases to 19.56 million. So far, the virus has killed 215,542 people. India reported a record 401,993 new coronavirus cases on Saturday.

Indian hospitals, morgues and crematoriums have been overwhelmed as the country has reported more than 300,000 daily cases for more than 10 days straight. 

Many families have been left on their own to scramble for medicines and oxygen. 

READ MORE: Muslims in India turn mosques, seminaries into Covid centres as cases surge

Scientists say govt ignored early warnings

Modi has been criticised for focusing on the state elections instead of making the pandemic his top priority. 

Some experts blame the rallies and mass religious gatherings attended by millions for the severity of the second wave.

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.

Last week, the High Court in Tamil Nadu state blamed the Election Commission for allowing crowded campaigns in the middle of a global pandemic. 

"Your institution is singularly responsible for the second wave of Covid-19. Your officers should be booked on murder charges probably," the court said.

READ MORE: Indian government ignored warnings over Covid variant - scientists

Source: TRTWorld and agencies