Voters in key Indian state reject Narendra Modi's BJP party amid Covid-19 disaster

Loss in West Bengal adds to growing signs of a backlash over his handling of the world’s worst virus outbreak

Supporters of Trinamool Congress party chief Mamata Banerjee holding an earlier photograph of her celebrate early lead for the party in the West Bengal state elections in Kolkata, India, Sunday, May 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Ashim Paul)
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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party suffered a major electoral defeat in a state he visited frequently before the recent virus surge forced him off the campaign trail.

In West Bengal, incumbent Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress won more than 70 per cent of 292 seats, while Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party took 76, according to results posted on the Election Commission of India on Monday. Mr Modi had predicted his party would win more than 200 seats in the state.

Mr Modi’s opponents won in the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, while his party kept power in the northeastern state of Assam and gained the federally-controlled territory of Puducherry, where it contested in alliance with a regional party. He conceded West Bengal in a series of posts on Twitter, congratulating Ms Banerjee, while also noting the BJP made gains in the state.

Grim scenes of overcrowded crematoriums and pleas for oxygen have overshadowed the election in recent weeks, with Mr Modi coming under fire for campaigning in front of huge crowds as infections were spiralling.

Daily deaths in India hit a record 3,689 on Sunday, while the number of cases slowed slightly after the country became the first to cross the mark of 400,000 cases in a day.

“As three strongly anti-BJP regional leaders have emerged victorious, they are likely to be the nucleus of the opposition challenge to Modi in the months ahead as he battles the backlash to his mismanagement of the Covid crisis,” said Arati Jerath, a New Delhi-based author and political analyst who has written about Indian politics for nearly three decades.

The results weaken the government and indicate there are “huge political and constitutional challenges ahead for Modi”.

The vote count on Sunday came a day after 12 patients, including a senior doctor, died when a hospital in the capital New Delhi ran out of oxygen after sending out desperate calls for help – the third such incident in the past 10 days. Shortages of beds, oxygen and medical supplies at major hospitals during the latest virus wave have turned a spotlight on India's underfunded health system.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal on Saturday said his administration had told both the courts and the federal government that his state had only been allocated 490 tonnes of oxygen per day, about half of what it needs.

In the elections, Mr Modi’s BJP had sought to expand its footprint in the country’s east and south, where it has struggled to gain traction.

The victory for his party in Assam, where a religion-based citizenship act spurred protests, could further embolden the government to implement the controversial law across the country. Still, it failed to unseat West Bengal’s Ms Banerjee, one of the most outspoken critics of Mr Modi’s pro-Hindu agenda.

Amid Mr Modi's election challenges, the country is expediting an effort to expand vaccinations nationwide, but any success may come too late for the PM.

India expanded its vaccination campaign to people ages 18-44 on Saturday. The nation is the world’s biggest producer of vaccines, but even the ongoing effort to inoculate people above 45 is stuttering. Since January, 10 per cent of Indians have received one dose, but only around 1.5 per cent have received both required doses.

Pfizer is in discussions with the Indian government, seeking an "expedited approval pathway" for its vaccine. It also announced a donation of medicines worth more than $70 million.

"Unfortunately, our vaccine is not registered in India although our application was submitted months ago," CEO Albert Bourla said on LinkedIn.

The severity of the crisis has prompted a number of countries to introduce travel bans and restrictions for citizens traveling to, or returning from India.

Australia on Monday defended its decision to penalise its own citizens entering the country within two weeks of being in COVID-ravaged India, saying it had "strong, clear and absolute" belief the move was legal.

Health Minister Greg Hunt pointed to the alarming surge of coronavirus cases in India and the pressure on Australia's health system as reasons to pause travel until May 15. Australia, which has largely contained the novel coronavirus, closed its borders to non-citizens in March 2020.

"It's a high-risk situation in India," Mr Hunt told a televised news briefing in Melbourne.

The Australian Human Rights Commission lambasted the decision, urging lawmakers to immediately review the restrictions. The Commission will approach the government directly with its concerns, it said in a statement.

Returning residents and citizens must undergo a mandatory two-week hotel quarantine at their own expense. Australia has seen 22,245 cases of community transmission and 910 deaths through the pandemic.