They counted the votes before they counted the bodies. After huge super-spreader assembly election campaigns in several states, the results finally came in as India was gripped by an even deadlier wave of Covid. Cremation grounds overflowed and patients struggled breathlessly for scarce oxygen while the Election Commission – for whose actions a High Court has used the term ‘murder’ – told us who had won and who had lost.
But not who had died.
Assembly election results mean different things to different people. For the BJP, the victory it had already declared in the West Bengal polls would have served as a morale booster in the midst of a crisis. During its last term in office, when India reeled from the disaster of demonetisation, the BJP had gloated that its electoral victory in Uttar Pradesh proved that the electorate was behind the Prime Minister. A victory in Bengal might have achieved the same effect even if it involved clambering over the bodies of those who had died during the unprecedentedly long campaign that the Election Commission designed despite the objections of all parties except, of course, for the BJP.
But there was no victory. There were only defeat and humiliation.
Having become a force to reckon with in Bengal, the BJP had said it would take the final step and throw out the incumbency-afflicted TMC government. The Prime Minister made it his personal mission to tour the state and address large rallies. The BJP bulk-purchased a large chunk of the TMC’s top leadership. Vast financial resources were thrown into the election. On social media, a campaign of rare ferocity and power was raged against the TMC.
And everyone else did their bit: the central agencies obligingly raided the TMC’s leaders. The EC functioned, as Prashant Kishor said on NDTV, “as an extension of the BJP”, turning a deaf ear to the most offensively communal speeches.
At nearly every rally, the BJP chant was “Jai Shri Ram”. In actual fact, “Ram Naam Satya Hai” would have been more appropriate.
As thousands of people died and the vaccine program spluttered unsteadily with only 2 per cent of our population fully vaccinated, the top people in government focussed only on the elections and took their eyes off the virus. As our leaders campaigned, Covid spread death and destruction across India.
And the BJP went down to defeat. Amit Shah had predicted 200 seats. The party struggled to even go beyond 80. And the TMC swept Bengal in a landslide that embarrassed exit pollsters had either failed to see, or had been asked to suppress.
So the election victory they had hoped for to distract attention from governmental failures on Covid turned into the worst kind of defeat. And it served as a vivid demonstration that even when the BJP and its friends in the agencies, the Election Commission and a cheerfully co-operative media give it their best shot, a woman in a wheelchair can still whip their backsides.
If the results of the Bengal election force the government to focus more on the pandemic and less on politicking, campaigning and legislator-purchasing then India will have gained. And lives will be saved.
But even after that defeat, Mr Modi is in no immediate danger. The message of the elections in other states is that there is no national opposition to the BJP.
There may be no growth in the party’s areas of influence. In Tamil Nadu, the BJP, despite its doomed efforts to tango with Rajinikanth, remains a tiresome irrelevance. In Kerala, where the RSS has worked so hard to raise communal temperatures, the BJP is still a junior artiste. But, overall, the BJP benefited because the Congress did much worse in these elections. In Kerala, where it had alternated in power with the Left for four decades, the Congress lost decisively, giving the Left an unprecedented second term. In Assam, where things had begun well and where the Congress was strengthened by alliances (including a controversial one with Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF), it lost an election it should have won. In Puducherry, where it should have earned popular sympathy because of the way in which its government was toppled, it went down to defeat. There are specific local reasons for each defeat, mostly to do with poor choice of people and factionalism but the overall message is hard to ignore. The Congress, in its present form, is virtually unelectable anywhere in India. It is not a message that the Congress wants to hear. It had put off decisions on a new President and fresh party leadership till the summer hoping that these assembly elections would come as a morale booster. Now that they have gone so badly, the Congress must confront the obvious existential question: change or political extinction?
Ironically, this comes at a time when Rahul Gandhi has been proven right on nearly every single thing he said about the government’s mishandling of the Covid crisis. And it hits the Congress when its younger leaders are earning so much goodwill with their voluntary work during this pandemic.
But in politics, it is not enough to be right. To survive, you need to win. Sonia Gandhi will need to take stock. And Mr Modi will have to rethink his strategies. Till now, it had been said by his critics that all Mr Modi knows how to do is to win elections. He does not bother to govern. That criticism now seems misplaced. As Bengal shows, he doesn’t necessarily know how to win elections. Even when he tries his very best, there are times when the only place that Mr Modi’s party can win a landslide is on WhatsApp.
If we are lucky, then India’s politicians will admit that politics is not just about electoral success or failure. It is about people. And today, the people are sick, dying and badly let down by these who govern us.
Lives must come before politics.
(Vir Sanghvi is a journalist and TV anchor.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.