Indian leader’s party takes electoral hit amid virus surge

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Indian policemen guard at a vote counting center for the state legislature elections amid a weekend lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus Kochi, Kerala state, India, Sunday, May 2, 2021. (AP Photo/R S Iyer)

NEW DELHI (AP) — Preliminary voting trends released by India’s electoral body on Sunday indicate Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party failed to make gains in four recent state elections, a sign his political strength may be slipping as the country struggles to contain an unprecedented surge in coronavirus cases.

Health experts say the massive electoral rallies and marches held as voters cast their ballots in March and April are partly to blame for the subsequent spike in COVID-19 infections. Public anger for allowing the elections to go forward despite the risk has been directed at both Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the independent Election Commission. The commission will release the final voting results later Sunday.

Even before the current virus surge, Modi’s party faced stiff challenges making inroads in these local elections. Following the disappointing results, Modi stands weakened but faces no threats to staying on as prime minister until his term ends in 2024.

The Election Commission’s voting trend forecasts on Sunday showed the BJP trailing in West Bengal state behind a powerful regional party, apparently unable to dislodge the state’s firebrand chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, after a hard-fought campaign.

Modi’s party looks set to retain power in the northeastern Assam state for a second term, but failed to pick up any significant gains there or make inroads in two southern states, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

“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.

Last week, the High Court in Tamil Nadu state blamed the Election Commission for allowing crowded campaigns in the middle of a global pandemic. India’s daily new virus cases began rising past 100,000 in late March, and above 300,000 daily new cases on April 21, collapsing India’s tattered health care system.

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

Nationwide, death is so omnipresent that burial grounds are running out of space in many cities, and glowing funeral pyres blaze through the night. With the government unable to maintain a steady supply of oxygen to overwhelmed hospitals, desperate relatives plead for oxygen outside or weep in the street for loved ones who died waiting for treatment.

On Sunday, India recorded a slight drop in new infections with 392,488, down from a high of 401,993 in the previous 24 hours. It also reported 3,689 additional deaths, bringing the total number of fatalities to 215,542. Experts believe both figures are an undercount.

Modi’s party soared in Hindu-dominated regions in central and northern India since he was elected in 2014. The recent local elections were seen as crucial for the party to gain a foothold in three states that have sizeable minority Muslim populations. The Hindu nationalist BJP has for years been accused of stoking religious polarization and discriminating against minorities.

The prime minister also wants to project the BJP as a national party, replacing a dynastic Congress party that governed India for more than six decades after independence from British rule in 1947.

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