Modi’s party loses key state election amid pandemic vote, record deaths

Supporters of Chief Minister of West Bengal state and the Chief of Trinamool Congress (TMC) Mamata Banerjee celebrate after the initial poll results, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Kolkata, India, May 2, 2021. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

NEW DELHI – India counted votes for state elections on Sunday, May 2, 2021, even as it announced 3,689 deaths from covid-19 in the past 24 hours – a grim new national record.

Elections were held in four states and a union territory in late March and April, coinciding with the start of India’s deadly second wave that has crushed the country’s creaky health-care system. On Sunday more than 390,000 new infections were announced.

The holding of elections over the past month even as the number of new cases mushroomed has drawn scrutiny in India. The Madras High Court even went so far as to slam the country’s Election Commission for not stopping political rallies that were flouting covid protocols. Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee called the organization “singularly responsible” for the new surge in cases.

Over the past month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held several massive campaign rallies attended by tens of thousands of people in the eastern state of West Bengal where his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party or the BJP, was in a close race with an opposition party led by a woman. Modi and his powerful deputy, Amit Shah addressed over 50 rallies in Bengal, according to NDTV.

By evening, it was clear that Modi’s party had lost the bitterly-fought election battle. The BJP was also on track to lose in two other south Indian states where they were not in the reckoning. The party is set to retain power in the state of Assam.

Modi has been panned by critics for sending the wrong message by holding rallies at a time when India was on its way to becoming the worst-affected country in the world by the pandemic, but losses in these elections may only signify a limited test of the impact of the unfolding crisis on his support.

Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of Bengal, known for her streetfighter reputation, asked her supporters to remain at home. “Covid is my first priority,” Bannerjee said in her victory speech. The state capital, Kolkata, has in recent days seen a climbing positivity rate with every second person being tested turning out to be positive.

Anger over the Modi government’s missteps – from allowing a large-scale Hindu festival in northern India that drew millions of devotees to not preparing the country for the expected second wave – is at its highest level since he swept to power in 2014. But analyst Milan Vaishnav said that the political consequences of this governance failure may not be a given as Modi has “proven to be a master of reinventing his public persona.”

In Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state, village council elections in April resulted in the death of over 700 government teaching staff deployed on poll duty due to coronavirus, according to the teacher’s association, an alarming indication of the worsening situation in rural areas, that had been spared in the first wave.

Meanwhile, the situation in India’s capital continued to be desperate with hospitals continuing to face oxygen shortages for over a week. Dozens of critical coronavirus patients in hospitals have died in recent days as supplies have run out. On Sunday, May 2, 2021, a children’s hospital took to Twitter pleading for fresh supplies.

“Enough is enough,” said the High Court in Delhi on Saturday May 1, 2021,  slamming the central government for failing to provide adequate oxygen supplies to the city. Elsewhere in the city, parks and parking lots have been turned into makeshift crematoriums to handle the high volume of dead bodies.

On Twitter, citizen volunteers were overwhelmed with distressed pleas for hospital beds, oxygen cylinders or medicine needs.

The desperation has spread to India’s diaspora in the United States where people are struggling to help family and friends back in India scrambling to find health care even as life increasingly returns to normal in America.

A glimmer of hope came from Mumbai’s financial capital and one of the worst-hit cities. Its positivity rate came down to single digits at just under 10 percent, half of what it was at the beginning of April. The city has been commended for successfully triaging patients and enforcing strict lockdown measures.

Randeep Guleria, a top doctor who is part of the national coronavirus task force, said the country had been “caught off-guard” by the ferocity of the second wave, suggesting an “aggressive lockdown,” was the way forward. Last year, India imposed a harsh lockdown shutting down the country at a four-hour notice, which helped stem the spread of the virus but wreaked havoc on its economy and leaving millions of migrant workers trapped in cities without jobs.

So far, the country has avoided bringing in another national lockdown though nearly a dozen states have enforced local restrictions. In Delhi, authorities have extended the two-week lockdown for another week, shutting down all activities except essential services such as food and medical supplies.

The state of Haryana, bordering Delhi, announced a full shutdown for a week on Sunday. Uttar Pradesh, one of the worst affected states in the second wave, has instituted a weekend lockdown in a bid to curb the spread. Schools remain shut across the country but people are allowed to travel to vaccination sites.

The vaccination drive on May 1, which was opened up to everyone above the age of 18, sputtered to a halt in many states on its first day due to vaccine shortages. Several states requested citizens who had registered to receive a jab to stay home, saying they would prioritize those who were due to receive the second shot.

In an interview with Britain’s Times of London, Adar Poonawalla, the head of the Serum Institute, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer by volume, described receiving threatening calls from politicians as his company struggles to meet India’s vaccine demands.

“The level of expectation and aggression is really unprecedented. It’s overwhelming,” he said. Poonawalla, flew to London with his family recently, hours before flights were barred by Britain from India.

“I’m staying here an extended time, because I don’t want to go back to that situation,” said Poonawalla. “Everything falls on my shoulders, but I can’t do it alone.”

He later took to Twitter to say he would be returning to India in a few days after the interview set off a storm of criticism against him.

India, which had donated millions of doses to its poorer neighbors and other countries in the months preceding the crisis, has temporarily halted all vaccine exports as it struggles to ramp up its own vaccination program.

While India has already administered 153 million doses – a raw figure any country would be proud of – it is only the smallest fraction of the nation’s 1.3 billion people. Some 27 million have been fully vaccinated so far.





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