Before the election epidemic spread, five voters were killed in Central Reserve Police Force firing in recent times, especially in West Bengal and Cooch Behar, and there have been countless attacks from candidates. All major parties.
In Uttar Pradesh, panchayat elections would have been a prudent affair if panchayat elections had not been held during the epidemic, with daily reports of election-related killings.
The decision to hold the West Bengal elections in eight phases could not be further explained as the Tamil Nadu elections could be held in a short period of time. It is now clear that hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of polling agents were infected while working on election duties. Teachers, police officers and bureaucrats are dying under the supervision of state agencies, also denying that such deaths are linked to polling. It was the most violent election period since 1991, when more than 100 people were killed in electoral violence, prompting the Election Commission of India (ECI), led by TN Sheshan, to change its approach to secure elections.
The ECI’s contribution to this dire situation will be remembered. Ignoring expert advice and warnings about toll on human lives, it did not club the last three stages in the West Bengal elections. It ordered the parties to reduce their campaigns only after the BJP announced it would do so.
What about the results? Despite retaining power in Assam, the BJP faced a major setback. It failed to break Trinamool’s hold on Bengal, however, improved on its 2016 vote share (10.2%), but it was less than the 40% it gained in 2019. It will lose more than a third of the 121 assembly constituencies it won in 2019.
The BJP says it will not do well in the state elections as compared to the general elections, but the fact is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah led the BJP campaign in West Bengal and felt national. Hunting regional individuals from other parties has become a viable alternative to building its own cadre. Trinamool, on the other hand, has the highest vote share (48%).
The BJP has once again failed to make inroads in the South. In Puducherry, where it is merely a minor partner in the ruling coalition, voters in Tamil Nadu and Kerala do not look to the BJP as an alternative to state-based parties. It also lost its vote share compared to 2016.
Contrary to many, the LDF’s victory in Kerala is a testament to the government’s humanity and ability to manage the Kovid crisis. It will reward the eminent Chief Minister who is leading a responsible government that has invested in the capacity of the state. It is good that most chief ministers in India are paying attention at a time like this.
What other lessons can we draw? First, the BJP’s personal, divisive and aggressive campaign in West Bengal did not yield the desired results. The ruling party of India has largely failed to enter the South, which shows that nationalist rhetoric alone is not enough to expand the party base. The BJP has conquered new states when it has succeeded in showing itself as the main opposition to the ruling party, but it seems unable to do so when such opposition already exists.
Second, it was clear in the recent Indian elections that regional parties were key to resistance to the BJP. The Congress is the spectator rather than the actor in this state election. Mamata Banerjee’s ambition to mobilize regional forces into the opposition front is gaining ground with her party’s victory.
Finally, the significance of these results goes beyond the concerns raised by the deteriorating electoral process in India. The festive, election-like spirit is sucked in by the intense tone of the campaign, the personal attacks of betrayals and vices, the violence and the unchecked flow of money. There are variations, and the Southern leads to political civilization. But by and large, this time the election has created more reasons to grieve than to rejoice.
Elections are sacred to Indian voters who vote in large numbers with commitment and confidence in the system. But the sanctity of the election was violated, and those who entrusted their conduct were weakened. Political parties try to win at any cost by using money and violence without impunity. Looking the other way, ECI justified this process. Elections are the means of gaining power for governance. They now have an end in themselves.
As usual, it will be difficult for the BJP today to turn electoral setbacks into victories. One can only hope that this election period is over and that it will focus its attention on saving the lives of the people.
Gilles Verniers visits Ashoka University, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Trivedi Center for Political Data Co-Director and Senior Fellow at the Center for Policy Research.
These are the personal views of the author.