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India Assembly elections 2021: No winners, leaders must fight COVID-19 first

As India struggles with a vicious second wave of COVID-19 and a seemingly endemic shortage of oxygen, anti-incumbency seemed to have taken a back seat: Mamata Banerjee returned for a record third term in West Bengal; Pinarayi Vijayan got a never before second term in Kerala; M K Stalin finally got a chance in Tamil Nadu and the BJP renewed its mandate in Assam.

While Banerjee made boldfaced headlines for taking on an ascendant BJP, which gave the Bengal campaign its all, including 20 public meetings by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Kerala for the first time in its history renewed the mandate of the incumbent.

Pinarayi Vijayan and his COVID-19 containment strategy in Kerala is being praised in sharp contrast to the terrible international press the central government in New Delhi is getting.

Speaking to the media, both Banerjee and Vijayan asked the cadres not to celebrate and maintain all COVID-19 protocols.

Banerjee who had earlier been declared the winner in the high-voltage Nandigram constituency -- where she took on her erstwhile protégé turned BJP defector Suvendu Adhikari -- was later declared defeated and she accepted the verdict of the people while continuing to criticise the Election Commission (EC).

The EC by opting for an endless eight phase election in West Bengal -- which apparently has been drawn up to favour the BJP -- has invited huge flak, with a High Court calling it a "super spreader" and allowing huge public meetings an act of "murder".

The BJP’s desperation to wrest West Bengal from the TMC saw it holding huge public meetings with top leaders not bothering to wear masks nor asking the crowd to follow COVID protocol and social distancing.

In Tamil Nadu, the DMK led by M K Stalin finally became victorious and the controversial Sasikala, seen as a Jayalalitha legatee, turned out to be a damp squib as a political force. Superstar Kamal Hassan, who made his political debut, managed to win his own seat, but Tamil Nadu remains a bastion of the two Dravidian parties with no room for a third player. The DMK was expected to sweep but, the AIADMK put up a good fight.

In Assam which saw the Congress and the BJP in a direct face-off and a huge campaign by Congress leaders, including Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, saw the BJP retaining the state for a second time. Assam will stick to Sarbanda Sonowal as chief minister, according to sources, even while Himanta Biswa Sarma has laid a claim for the top job.

In tiny Puducherry, it was an expected victory where the BJP had toppled the government just before the elections.

Assam and Puducherry were the only ray of hope for the BJP, which rules at the centre. India has set a world record in the number of COVID-19 infections: 400,000 and counting and thousands of people dying because of endemic oxygen shortage. As the vaccine shortage looms, India is experiencing huge anger against the ruling party.

Vaccination drive has been opened for all ages, but vaccines are not available.

The big takeaway from the India assembly elections 2021 is the fact that despite the BJP's all-conquering victory projection, the party could be defeated by strong-rooted regional leaders. Sub-nationalism -- which many said had been subsumed by the BJP winning two terms at the centre -- is still part of the polity. Bengal and Tamil Nadu held on to their 'exceptionalism' of regional parties.

The sobering reality is that currently the India story is that of the COVID-19 catastrophe and all governments and the centre have to work together to defuse the crisis. On a day when more people died of oxygen shortages there are no winners and no celebrations of electoral victory.

India needs to win the COVID battle.