The defeat came as Modi is slammed publicly for failing to tackle an explosive spike in COVID infections that has left the country in a deep crisis.
Indian opposition parties and political commentators have cheered the election victory of a regional leader over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party in a big battleground state as a sign that his populist sway can be checked.
Sunday’s defeat in West Bengal came as Modi finds himself slammed publicly for failing to tackle India’s explosive spike in coronavirus infections that has left the country in a deep crisis, with hospitals and crematoriums swamped and people dying for lack of oxygen.
Modi addressed dozens of political rallies in West Bengal, hoping to widen the appeal of his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) eastwards from its traditional northern and western strongholds.
But West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who ran the campaign for her regional party from a wheelchair because of a fall at a rally, won a two-thirds victory, raising opposition hopes Modi could be challenged across the country.
“What Bengal does today, India does tomorrow,” columnist Shobhaa De wrote in The Print, paraphrasing a quotation by 19th-century liberal Gopal Krishna Gokhale.
“What happened in West Bengal is just the beginning.”
Prashant Kishor, a political strategist for Banerjee, said: “The election result has given voice and hope to those who want to fight this danger called BJP.”
The Shiv Sena, another regional group that controls the western state of Maharashtra, where Mumbai is, said the election result was a personal defeat for Modi because he put everything on the line and ignored the health crisis.
“Instead of tackling the raging COVID-19 pandemic, the entire central government, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was in the poll arena of West Bengal to defeat Mamata Banerjee,” it said.
Modi has kept an iron grip on Indian politics since sweeping to power in 2014 and winning a bigger victory in the 2019 national election on the back of a strong Hindu supremacist ideology.
Until now, there have been no challengers and with the main opposition Congress party unable to mobilise, Modi has been expected to win the 2024 national poll.
Men wearing PPE perform last rites for a deceased relative in a disused granite quarry repurposed to cremate the COVID dead in Bengaluru [File: Abhishek Chinnappa/Getty Images]
But images of people dying from COVID in hospital parking lots and corridors because of a lack of beds, hospitals themselves begging for life saving oxygen supplies and overflowing crematoriums have shaken the public mood, opinion polls show.
Confidence in the government’s handling of the crisis has plummeted since February when the second wave of infections started, according to a survey among urban Indians by polling agency YouGov.
While 89 percent said the government was handling the COVID issue “very” or “somewhat” well in April last year, only 59 percent felt the same last month, the latest data from YouGov’s COVID-19 Public Monitor showed.
The COVID crisis is fanning growing anger against the federal government, said political commentator Neerja Chowdhury.
“People are not likely to forget the shortage of hospital beds, oxygen and vaccines in a hurry. They are also unlikely to forget in a hurry that the BJP’s central leadership made winning Bengal its life-and-death battle when there is a real life-and-death struggle on in the country.”