India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses party workers during the celebrations after the victory in Bihar assembly election and by-elections in other states at BJP headquarters on November 11, 2020 in New Delhi, India. Photo: NurPhoto

An alliance led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi emerged victorious in Bihar state’s nail-bitingly close election, as well as in by-elections in half a dozen other states. The victories came despite the fact that the government is struggling in areas including the pandemic, the economy, defense and development.

It is clear from the results that Modi’s stature is growing unabated, and is unmatched in the opposition parties. The results also portend that he may well be poised to win upcoming state elections in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Assam states, thereby extending and cementing his control across India.

West Bengal sends 42 lawmakers to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, Tamil Nadu 39, Kerala 20 and Assam 14, out of a total of 543. Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 18 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal and none in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, but sees scope to significantly increase its tally in these states. Winning the state assemblies will also help the BJP increase its count in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament, where a majority is crucial for passing several critical bills.

Forming a government in West Bengal would help the BJP fulfill its avowed objective of blocking and sending back illegal migrants from Bangladesh. West Bengal shares a 2,200-km border with Bangladesh. The state, like neighboring Bihar, is home to large numbers of poor people seeking a better quality of life.

West Bengal and Bihar, already facing elevated levels of unemployment and under-employment, were severely impacted by the draconian Covid-19 lockdown imposed from March 25, which saw millions of workers return to their hometowns from across the country.

India has recorded 8.6 million Covid-19 cases, the world’s second-highest number after the United States, and the third-highest number of fatalities – 127,615. The Indian economy recorded its biggest-ever quarterly contraction, 23.9%. To make matters even worse, the Chinese military invaded the border region of Ladakh in northern India.

Yet, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its state-level ally the Janata Dal (United) party managed to win 125 Bihar seats, scraping past the halfway mark for the 243-seat state assembly. The Indian National Congress and its state allies the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Communist Party of India had to settle for 110.

The BJP and its allies also won 19 of the 28 seats in Madhya Pradesh, six of the seven in Uttar Pradesh, all eight seats in Gujarat, both seats in Karnataka, the sole seat in Telangana, and all four in Manipur, while the Congress and its allies bagged the sole seats in Chhattisgarh and Haryana, and both seats in Jharkhand.

The win in Madhya Pradesh will help the BJP keep running its government, which was formed by weaning away 22 lawmakers and dislodging the elected Congress government in March.

For Bihar, almost all pre-poll and post-poll surveys showed a resounding victory for the opposition alliance. They focused on providing a million new jobs, setting up industry in one of poorest states, and helping the farmers. Bihar was one of the worst sufferers during the lockdown, which saw millions of workers from all over the country walked or hitchhiked home. Many of the 20 soldiers killed by the Chinese in Ladakh came from Bihar.

In his speeches, Modi invoked issues of nationalism, including in a Kashmir context, and air-strikes inside Pakistan in February 2019, but political commentators say what clinched the poll were age-old issues relating to caste/class and religious alignments.

Many were disappointed with the quality and content of the discourse during the elections. Political activist Yogendra Yadav said he was dismayed that hardly any of the challenges the country faces were debated. There was no mention of wide-ranging changes in labor and farm laws, or the recession or industry.

“Democratic elections have been known to be notoriously ineffective in addressing deep structural issues like poverty or lack of education or health infrastructure,’’ Yadav wrote in The Print. “But now we have elections that do not address the most visible and pressing issues of the time.’’

The Bihar elections also threw up some interesting changes. The Hyderabad-based All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) bagged five seats, all of them in areas that border with Nepal and West Bengal, which are predominantly Muslim.

Some political pundits see the AIMIM as a Muslim counter to the BJP, which gets most of its support from Hindu voters. The AIMIM is now preparing to contest West Bengal elections, reducing the space for middle of the path secular political parties. The forthcoming elections will show whether the polarization is widespread or limited.

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