By Subrata, Nagchoudhury, Zarir and Husain
KOLKATA (Reuters) - Five Indian states will declare results on Sunday from local elections held in March and early April, at the start of a surge in COVID-19 cases that has overwhelmed the country and its healthcare system, an election official said on Saturday.
The election results are seen as an early test of the impact the devastating second wave of the pandemic is having on support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his right-wing BJP party.
Counting of votes in Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry will begin on Sunday morning.
Over 1,000 count observers will conduct the process with everyone expected to produce a negative COVID-19 test report or show they have been fully vaccinated.
Most of the votes in the state elections were cast in March but polling in some constituencies continued through April, just as India started detecting thousands of fresh coronavirus infections every day.
On Saturday, new cases reached a record daily high of 401,993.
The second wave has overwhelmed hospitals, morgues and crematoriums and left families scrambling for scarce medicines and oxygen. And while India is the world's biggest producer of COVID-19 vaccines, shortages of the shots in some states have hindered the start of a mass vaccination drive.
Ahead of the surge in cases, leaders of all political parties, including Modi, led political rallies at which large crowds flouted rules on social distancing and mask-wearing.
Some experts blame the rallies and mass religious gatherings attended by millions for the severity of the second wave.
Modi has been criticised for focusing on the state elections instead of making the pandemic his top priority.
The federal government has meanwhile been accused of failing to respond to a warning in early March from its own scientific advisers that a new and more contagious variant was taking hold in the country.
(Writing by Rupam Jain, Editing by Catherine Evans)