Modi Goes Down to Crushing Defeat in West Bengal: A Ray of Hope for India?

(First in a projected mini-series on the West Bengal Assembly Elections. For non-Indian readers or others not immersed in the nitty-gritty of Indian politics, the state assembly elections determine which party will rule the state. In the present round of assembly elections, five states went to the polls in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which has wrought havoc in India in recent weeks. Far from being suspended, elections in West Bengal were held over a period of five weeks.)

The incumbent Chief Minister of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), Mamata Banerjee, popularly known in Bengal as “Didi” (literally, older sister), addressing a crowd from her wheelchair.

Indian elections have seldom been pretty affairs, certainly not in the last decade, and the gargantuan scale as well of even state legislative assembly elections makes elections in most countries look like tame affairs.  However, even by the rough-and-tumble standards set by politicians and their followers in India, the just concluded elections to the West Bengal Vidhan Sabha will go down not only as one of the most keenly and even bitterly contested elections in the country’s recent history but as a sure indicator of the depth of depravity to which the BJP has sunk and the manner in which it has dragged down institutions such as the Election Commission in its naked quest for power.

However, before assessing the possible implications of the defeat of the BJP and in particular its chief stewards, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Home Minister Amit Shah, it is necessary to anticipate some of the objections that may be raised to the idea that this electoral loss is the most significant one suffered by the BJP in the last seven years.  Having captured 77 seats and 38.1% of the vote, the BJP might even have reason to feel proud.  Surely, what is most consequential is that the Congress, in West Bengal as well as in the elections fought in Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, and Assam, has shown that the party is in its present state unelectable.  Similarly, it is the absolute evisceration of the CPM, which not so long ago dominated the politics of West Bengal, that must strike any observer.  The Left-Congress alliance has not won a single seat; yet, in the 2016 assembly elections, the Left won 76 seats.  So, the defender of the BJP might argue, the party’s defeat is scarcely a “crushing” blow.  The party improved its vote share from 10.2% in 2016, when it won all of three seats out of 294, to 38.1% in 2021.  Nearly all of the seats that the BJP has won have been at the expense of the Left and the Congress.

But this is of course far from being the whole picture.  The previous benchmark is not in fact the 2016 state elections but rather the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, where the BJP won 40.2% of the vote.  The decline of 2% in the party’s vote share may appear insignificant, especially to the person who swears by statistics. The real story, of course, lies in the fact that Modi and Shah, whose writ does not run in much of South India, as the resounding defeat of the BJP in Tamil Nadu and Kerala confirm yet again, have long been eyeing Bengal as the last big prize in the non-Dravidian Aryavarta (broadly defined) that had been evading their clutches.  Consequently, Modi put his heart and soul into making Bengal submissive to him, and thus made it tacitly clear that the election was practically a verdict on him.  Only some days ago, while addressing a large rally, he observed with his characteristic pomp that he saw only a sea of faces around him, more faces indeed than had ever been seen at any election rally.  This remark has justly earned him notoriety around the world:  all around him, thousands have been dying on account of Covid-19 because of his government’s willful obliviousness to the pandemic.  His principal deputy, Amit Shah, had similarly prophesized that the BJP would win 200 seats.

There is still far more to this crushing defeat—a defeat that, it should be stressed, is even more so than a loss for the BJP an absolute humiliation for Modi.  Though the Election Commission as an institution must in principle be respected as a guardian of Indian democracy, Modi had rendered it into his handmaiden.  The first piece of engineering was to have the West Bengal election held in eight phases staggered over a period exceeding five weeks. This is itself unprecedented, except in a national election—and of course that alone is a sign of the fact that Modi construed the election to be as vital as the Lok Sabha elections.  The supposition was that the BJP could over weeks pour in vast sums of money and put to use its massive machinery which serves no other purpose except to win electoral battles and thereby gain an advantage over the Trinamool and other opposition parties.  And still the BJP and Modi lost.  Then various central agencies, all of them firmly in Modi’s pocket, summoned TMC leaders to answer often decade-old corruption charges, while other TMC leaders were literally purchased and seduced into defecting en masse into the BJP camp.  And still the BJP and Modi lost.  The BJP is, of course, far from being the first party in India to have exploited the communal card.  But Modi and Shah played the communal card with vengeance, showing utter contempt for Muslims and instigating Hindus to revive Hindu pride.  The Election Commission mouthed the usual pieties advising politicians to abjure from stirring communal passions and then did nothing.  And still the BJP and Modi lost.

No doubt, in the days ahead, a full autopsy of this election will be carried out by television channels, newspapers, and social media.  The anti-incumbency factor has long been viewed by the political pandits and psephologists as a key factor in Indian politics but West Bengal and Kerala show amply the futility of such predictions and the increasing irrelevance of what passes as social science wisdom.  In an election marked by obscenities—the rank appeal by the BJP to the worst communalist sentiments, the vast sum of money thrown into the elections, the BJP’s massive command over social media and its deployment of trolls whose appetite for tactics of terror and intimidation is insatiable, and, most of all, the impunity with which lives have been sacrificed while a pandemic devours the country—what also stands out is the singular fact that the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a man who knows how to win elections has been shattered.

In ancient Aryavarta, the ruler upon achieving victory let loose a horse and performed the Ashwamedha yagna.  Modi will not be performing this sacrifice, not yet; but he did let loose Covid and sacrificed tens of thousands lives so that he and Amit Shah could hold their roadshows.  What is remarkable is that it is still too early to say whether his popularity will have been considerably dented by the triple loss of Bengal, the drubbing that his image has had to endure in the international press, and the catastrophic loss of lives in the wake of his mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic.  Mamata Banerjee, following her victory, pronounced that ‘Bengal Saved India Today’.  But it would be a mistake to accept her verdict as anything more than a rhetorical gesture in a moment of exultation.  For one thing, it must be said loud and clear that the TMC is not much more principled than the BJP.  One hopes that one will be spared that aphorism in which Bengal has long reveled, ‘What Bengal thinks today, the rest of India thinks tomorrow’. Whatever the veneration for ‘Didi’ in Bengal, the rest of the country would be better advised to view the outcome not as an endorsement of her but rather simply as a defeat for Modi and the BJP and the politics of relentless divisiveness. Modi will almost certainly see this as a passing phase and his followers will, to invoke an old cliché, remind the country that he may have lost a battle but is still primed to win the war.  The bitter and inescapable truth is that the country will require a new political imagination to take it out of the morass of adharma and asatya in which it is mired.  The electoral outcome in West Bengal is only that slight sliver of hope in one of the country’s darkest moments in recent history that there are perhaps better days ahead.

First published at the ABP website under the title, “Modi Goes Down to Crushing and Wholly Deserved Defeat in West Bengal”, here.

Also translated into these languages:







7 thoughts on “Modi Goes Down to Crushing Defeat in West Bengal: A Ray of Hope for India?

  1. I don’t send my posts to anyone. You must have subscribed and you can unsubscribe yourself. As it is, given your views and your inability to form a coherent set of thoughts, I doubt that you would have anything to learn from a “Westernized” “intellectual” such as myself.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Prof. Lal, thanks for sharing your opinions with us. I definitely agree with you that there is still far more to this crushing defeat—a defeat that, it should be stressed, is even more so than a loss for the BJP an absolute humiliation for Modi. The pandemic in India was indeed terrible. What is more, the gap between the rich and the poor can be seen clearly from the pandemic. The rich ran away from the country to have holidays on the beach. The poor died in crowd without support for medicine and oxygen. The institution in India was definitely alarming. It is true that the bitter and inescapable truth is that the country will require a new political imagination to take it out of the morass of adharma and asatya in which it is mired. This is worth the world’s attention.

    TIngyu LIu

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hello, professor. I sympathize with India people from bottom of my heart. Indeed, the COVID-19 had made a serious influence in India, and there are more and more people suffer the threaten of various. On other hand, Modi goes down to crushing defeat in West Bengal maybe cause passive outcome to the prevention and cure of COVID-19. There are many evidence to provide this idea. First, Modi is still calling on people to vote and refuse to wear masks when speaking in West Bengal. The opposition criticized that if Modi had not relaxed his vigilance, the epidemic situation in India would not have been made this worse situation. India’s Ministry of health released the latest data on May 6. In the past 24 hours, more than 410000 new diagnoses have been made in India, and the cumulative number of confirmed cases has also exceeded 21 million. The failure of modi’s government is closely related to this fierce epidemic, and after the election, there was a very serious violent riot in West Bengal. More than one professional has also called on the India government to lay down everything on its hands and focus on COVID-19. The epidemic situation in India has come to a point where it can no longer be ignored. Today, the number of one-day deaths is about to exceed 4000. This situation can no longer be allowed to worsen.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hello professor,
    Thank you for sharing insightful analysis. After reading your article, I could understand the current political situation in India more closely. The biggest problem with Modi’s political moves you mentioned above and the practical implications of Modi’s defeat are that Modi not only diminishes democratic values but also uses the lives of Indians as a political end. Election activities and large-scale campaigns in the region are important factors to win political votes. Yet amid the current global spread of Covid-19, Modi’s massive campaign may have been one of the key factors that claimed innocent lives in India. I was shocked by Modi’s remarks that more people gathered than the previous rally as he addressed a massive rally. Certainly, his comments seem to be more important to the political authority, and the victory of his own parties, the BJP than the lives of Indians. Additionally, I was surprised by your quote “Modi had rendered the Election Commission into his handmaiden”. The artificially lengthening of West Bengal elections not only corrupts the value of democracy but also reflects Modi’s wrong action in not thinking about the value of India’s life in Bengal. I’m sorry that Modi’s political intentions and his power-based attitude seem to have hurt Indians a lot in a big way.


  5. Hello Professor,

    This is absolutely tangential and adjacent to your point, but I think it is worth mentioning because of the absolute absurdity of the entire situation. There is a YouTube channel called SoSorry, which makes bizarre and offensive animations in regards to Indian politics. Oddly enough, the animations’ terrible quality and bizarre subject matter have led to them seeing extreme success in the cesspit that is American online meme culture. Animations of Modi meeting with Trump, Modi fighting a caricature of Xi Jingping dressed up as Winnie the Pooh, and Modi engaging in an archery battle against the COVID-19 virus have all appeared in various forms. While this may seem innocuous and even funny to some, these animations may be some of the only exposure that many people on the internet have to Indian politics, and to the lesser-informed viewers, has rendered them a joke on a global scale. These animations are full of nationalist rhetoric, violence, and all the bravado of the Modi administration, and hopefully his defeat can lead to a recovery in both India, and the media that it chooses to release into social media.


  6. Reading this article after reading the comparison of Modi to Muhammad Tughluq, it shines more light on the extent of that passage and how this event is so monumental. After reading more about Modi’s style of leadership, it seems that what I interpreted in the previous article was true, he is not truly here to serve the people of India, but rather he is here to exercise the power that was granted to him. It’s also a bit similar to other countries as well, in terms of having 1 leader that engineers the government to best serve him, however, it was very refreshing to read about how Modi was being challenged in the elections today. Although this may not signify the end of Modi’s rule in India, it definitely sets the ray of hope that is necessary for the people to continue involving themselves in their government in the hopes of electing a better leader. In my opinion, once a government shows no signs of movement and is under the sole influence of one power, that’s when the people begin to give up.


  7. I found the figures that you’ve provided interesting. After BJP’s loss, the general view was that BJP is losing its grip over India and that the बुरा समय is going to end. But the figures you provided were quite sobering since it shows that the BJP’s control and influence of Bengal actually increased in this election. While the TMC may not necessarily be a better party, it does provide the opposition required at the state level, which is imperative for a healthy democracy. I wish the same would happen at the national level for which there is absolutely no party right now that even resembles opposition. There needs to be new leadership from the opposition- they can’t expect to do the same things and expect a different outcome. While TMC may not be the best I do have hope that it can prove itself to better. Politician Mahua Moitra, a member of the TMC, has been making headlines for her ferocious speeches in parliament, criticizing the national government. She seems sincere, and if there are more like her in TMC, I daresay that India’s future to me looks a little brighter.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s