Prime Minister Narendra Modi
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi Image Credit: PTI

In case India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party wins the all-important West Bengal assembly election on May 2, it may try to suggest the victory is an endorsement of its handling of the devastating second wave of Covid.

In case the BJP loses Bengal, the party’s critics might suggest the result is a reflection of public anger about the BJP’s poor handling of the Covid second wave. Some from within the BJP might suggest this as well, so as to deflect attention away from the real causes of the defeat.

In truth, Covid has had no impact on voter behaviour in West Bengal. It is important to flag this point and flag it now, because the post-facto election reasoning that lazy TV studio pundits come up with, tends to stick.

Phase 5 is when it began

The West Bengal assembly election was held in 8 phases from 27 to March to 29 April. A cursory look at the intricate way these 8 phases were organised tells you that the BJP’s strongest areas were in phase one. The incumbent Trinamool Congress’ strong areas, such as Muslim-dominated regions, polled in the latter phases.

By the time Covid second wave story overwhelmed the Bengal election story in the media and in public consciousness, the BJP’s strongest areas had already polled. It was after phase 5 that Prime Minister Modi cancelled his rallies.

No matter how many seats the BJP wins in Bengal, they will have no relation whatsoever to the first or second wave of Covid.

The hub of Kolkata

Most seats in the city of Kolkata also polled in these last three phases. Kolkata is also where Covid cases, the fear and panic of the second wave, is the highest.

Like elsewhere, it is the large metropolitan city that’s the hub of Covid. Again, Kolkata is a TMC stronghold and if the BJP does poorly here it won’t be because of Covid. It was anyway going to do poorly here.

Outside Kolkata, in the predominantly rural districts, Covid has, even now, not become an overwhelming story to cause the sort of resentment that Kolkata might be feeling about Modi’s poor handling of the second wave.

BJP should hope it loses Bengal

Right now, the BJP should hope it loses Bengal.

Winning Bengal will increase public resentment among the general public about the BJP focusing too much on politics and elections, not enough on governance and serving the people. The prime minister seems to realise this risk and has said, on more than once occasion, that the BJP is not an election-winning machine but a vehicle to serve the people.

If the BJP wins Bengal, it will mark a bitter contrast in the headlines with people dying because they can’t get oxygen and hospital beds. On one hand you see mass cremations and on the other hand you see the BJP winning Bengal. That’s going to make a victory look bad. It will look even worse as Covid is bound to flare up in Bengal in May.

Winning Bengal can only increase the sort of arrogance of power that has led the government to not prepare for the Covid second wave. The BJP’s electoral successes makes it overconfident about its performance in governance. They start believing in their own propaganda.

It is important for not just India but the BJP itself that they lose Bengal to get vaccinated with humility against the virus of power.

Uttar Pradesh opens up

The 2nd of May won’t tell us anything about the political repercussions of Covid second wave. But we won’t need to wait till the 2024 general elections either.

In the never-ending saga of Indian elections, up next is Uttar Pradesh in February 2022. That’s just 8 months away. It’s closer than it looks.

UP is the second most important election in India after the general election. This is the state from where Narendra Modi is elected into Parliament.

Until two months ago, it seemed the BJP could not lose UP. The tsunami of Covid second wave has opened Uttar Pradesh up for a real political contestation. The BJP’s anxiety about UP is already showing, with chief minister Yogi Adityanath threatening to seize the property of those who spread “false rumours” about oxygen shortage in the state.

The real test of how the BJP performs politically after Covid second wave will be UP, not Bengal.

Yogi versus Akhilesh

Over the next few months, UP will be the primary battlefield. All eyes will now be on Yogi Adityanath and his chief opponent, Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party.

In UP now, the BJP will drown out anti-incumbency noises with high-pitched propaganda, some intimidation and lots of resources. It will be fascinating to watch how they defend their record on Covid second wave, which is being felt too widely to be covered up with mere data fudging.

It will be a do-or-die election for both Yogi Adityanath and Akhilesh Yadav. If Yogi Adityanath can ride this storm, he will emerge larger than life. And if Akhilesh Yadav can’t win even after this, he will be history.