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Home >Opinion >Columns >The way these state polls were held should leave us in dismay

Never has analyzing election results seemed an exercise so disconnected from reality. Since the number of daily covid cases exploded three weeks ago, the conditions that led to Sunday’s outcomes have profoundly altered.

Even before these elections became a pandemic spreading vector, this has been the most violent election season in recent times, particularly in West Bengal, where five voters died under Central Reserve Police Force fire in Cooch Behar, and where countless attacks were perpetrated against candidates from all major parties.

In Uttar Pradesh, where panchayat elections would have remained a discreet affair had they not been held during a pandemic surge, there have been almost daily reports of murders connected to the polls.

The Tamil Nadu polls showed that large-scale elections can be held within a short span of time, making the decision of holding the West Bengal election in eight phases even more inexplicable. It is now clear that hundreds, and probably thousands, of polling agents have been exposed to the virus while serving on election duty. Teachers, police officers and bureaucrats are dying under the watch of state institutions that even deny that such deaths are linked to polling. This has been the most violent election season since 1991, when over 100 people died in electoral violence, prompting the Election Commission of India (ECI) under T.N. Seshan to transform the way elections are secured.

The ECI will be remembered for its contribution to this grim situation. Ignoring expert advice and warnings on the toll on human lives, it did not club the last three phases of the West Bengal elections. It ordered parties to scale down their campaigns only after the BJP declared it would do so.

What can be said about the results? Even though it has retained power in Assam, the BJP has faced a major setback. It has failed to break the Trinamool’s hold over Bengal, improving, though, on its 2016 vote share (10.2%), but remaining below the 40% it obtained in 2019. It loses more than a third of the 121 assembly segments it won in 2019.

The BJP will say that it does not perform as well in state elections as compared to a general one, but the fact remains that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah led the BJP campaign in West Bengal and treated it as a national one. Poaching regional figures from other parties has turned out to be a poor substitute for building its own cadre. The Trinamool on the other hand has notched its highest vote share ever (48%).

In the South, the BJP has failed yet again to make an entry. In Puducherry, it is merely a minor partner of the ruling coalition, while in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, voters did not look up to the BJP as an alternative to state-based parties. It also lost vote share compared to 2016.

The LDF victory in Kerala is a vindication for a government that, contrary to most others, has displayed humanity and competence in its handling of the covid crisis. It rewards a popular chief minister who is leading a responsible government that has invested in state capacity. Here is a lesson that most chief ministers in India would do well to pay heed to, at a time like this.

What other lessons can we draw? First, the BJP’s personal, divisive and aggressive campaign in West Bengal has not yielded the results the party had expected. India’s ruling party has largely failed to make inroads in the south, which shows that nationalist rhetoric alone is insufficient to expand the party’s base. The BJP conquers new states when it succeeds in presenting itself as the main opposition to a ruling party, but seems unable to do so when such opposition already exists.

Second, it has become obvious in recent Indian elections that regional parties hold the key to resistance to the BJP. The Congress was by and large a spectator rather than an actor in these state elections. Mamata Banerjee’s ambition to rally regional forces into an opposition front will be boosted by her party’s victory.

And lastly, the significance of these results remains by far outweighed by concerns raised by the deterioration of the electoral process in India. The celebratory, festive-like spirit of elections has been sucked out by the acrimonious tone of the campaigns, by betrayals and vicious personal attacks, by violence and the unchecked flow of money. There are variations, of course, and the south continues to lead in political civility. But by and large, elections this time have created more reasons to grieve than rejoice.

Elections are sacred for Indian voters, who vote in large numbers, with commitment and trust in the system. But the sanctity of elections has been violated, undermined by those entrusted with their conduct. Political parties try to win at any cost, using money and violence with impunity. By looking the other way, the ECI has abetted the process. Elections are meant to be the means to gain power to govern. They are now an end in themselves.

The BJP will find it difficult today to spin an electoral setback as a victory, as it usually does. One can only hope now that this election season is over, it will focus its attention on saving people’s lives.

Gilles Verniers is assistant professor of political science at Ashoka University, co-director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data, and visiting senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research.

These are the author’s personal views.

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