India's ruling BJP party loses key race in regional elections amid COVID-19 maelstrom

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) held huge rallies in West Bengal state this spring in a hard-fought race to unseat its chief minister, Mamata Banerjee. Banerjee won handily. After votes were counted Sunday, her All India Trinamool Congress party won 213 of the 292 seats up for grab in the state, according to the Election Commission of India. The BJP won 77 and two went to other parties. Modi congratulated his rival on her victory Sunday night.

Modi's BJP won in northeastern Assam state and, in alliance with regional parties, in the federally controlled territory of Puducherry, but lost in two southern states, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

The elections were held through March and April, as India's COVID-19 pandemic started spiraling out of control. India recorded a record 3,689 new deaths Sunday and 392,488 new infections, down from Saturday's pandemic-high 401,993 new infections. Both the death and infection numbers are believed to be much higher than the official tallies. In Kolkata, West Bengal's capital, half of all people tested for COVID-19 now test positive.

Indian Medical Association national vice president Navjot Dahiya last week called Modi a "super-spreader" for holding the large election rallies in West Bengal and allowing a Hindu religious festival to take place with no restrictions. The Madras High Court in Tamil Nadu also excoriated the Election Commission last week for allowing packed campaign rallies in the middle of the pandemic. "Your institution is singularly responsible for the second wave of COVID-19," Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee wrote for the court. "Your officers should be booked on murder charges probably."

Modi's government is "battling a public backlash on their mishandling of the COVID pandemic," political commentator Arati Jerath told The New York Times, but political analyst Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay cautioned that the loss in West Bengal will have to be studied to determine what role the BJP's coronavirus response played. "The BJP started running out of steam as the pandemic spread," he told The Associated Press. "The verdict in West Bengal state will definitely weaken Modi's position," but nobody's sure just how much.

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