The promise of free COVID vaccine to the people of BIhar as item no one in BJP election manifesto 2020 makes it the first political party in India to politicise the vaccine issue. Such gross decision making the vaccine a poll and election matter for seeking votes constitutes nothing short of a callous approach to deal with a pandemic which has flattened the curve of health, human and human security. Right since the month of March 2020 BJP has adopted a narrowly self-serving approach in handling the menace of novel coronavirus. It imposed the nationwide lockdown only after the party formed the Government in Madhya Pradesh in complete disregard of concerns expressed by public health experts, epidemiologists and some leading political figures in February 2020 itself that India and our health and economy would be ravaged without effective measures to tackle the pandemic.
BJP downplayed COVID Pandemic for political purposes in March
The partisan approach of BJP was so glaring that its leadership and the Union Government declared on 13th March that there was no health emergency in India arising out of novel coronavirus in complete disregard of World Health Organisation's 11th March declaration describing COVID 19 as a pandemic. By that time many countries had locked down and shut down almost all their activities to check the spread of the virus and protect the lives of people. Thus the narrow political approach of forming the Government in MP by downplaying the severity of the pandemic in March itself and now BJP Election Manifesto for Bihar promising free COVID vaccine sums up its partisan political persuasion in the context of COVID crisis.
The disaster wrought by the COVID pandemic is global in scope and, therefore, it can never be tackled by partisan and narrow approach flowing from crude competitive power politics. In such crisis ridden times one recalls the first Prime Minister of India Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who in his tryst with destiny speech had stated famously that “Peace has been said to be indivisible; so is freedom, so is prosperity now, and so also is disaster in this one world that can no longer be split into isolated fragments.”
Promise of Free COVID Vaccine to Bihar Violates Model Code
The announcement of free COVID vaccines for people of the Bihar in the BJP election manifesto is incompatible with the Election Commission's Model Code of Conduct(MCC) mandating, among others, that the manifestoes announcing promises should mention the source of finance and revenue based on which these would be implemented. Para 3 of the MCC dealing with Guide Lines on Election Manifestoes states categorically "In the interest of transparency, level playing field and credibility of promises, it is expected that manifestos also reflect the rationale for the promises and broadly indicate the ways and means to meet the financial requirements for it. Trust of voters should be sought only on those promises which are possible to be fulfilled".
Because the Union Finance Minister Shrimati Nirmala Sitaraman herself made the announcement for free vaccine as per the provisions of the election manifesto she should have given the sources of funding for implementing it. She did not do so and it clearly proves that there is no application of mind to implement the promise of free vaccine. It brings out the partisan perspective of BJP only for getting votes of people without explaining them the rationale and reasoning behind the promise.
Track Record of BJP in Dealing with COVID Crisis makes the free vaccine promise less credible
The promise of free vaccine for people of Bihar apart from being partisan and violative of MCC does not summon a bit of conviction to accept it as a credible assurance in face of the track record of Modi and Nitish Kumar Government in dealing with the pandemic. The Indian Medical Association recently stated that Rs. 50 lakh compensation announced by the Government of India for doctors losing life while treating COVID patients has not been made available to the families of the deceased doctors. Its demand for according martyr status to such doctors as has been done by the Odisha Government has not been conceded by the Government of India. Even the salaries of doctors working in some COVID hospitals in Delhi have not been paid and they went on strike.
The promise free COVID vaccine also sounds hollow in the context of State Chief Minister Shri Kumar’s earlier statement that trains carrying millions of migrant labour of the State would not be allowed to enter Bihar. He made that statement after they were permitted to travel when the COVID was spreading at an alarming pace across the country. Possibly Shri Kumar was apprehensive that if migrant labour from several cities, where the corona positive cases were rising fast, would be allowed to enter Bihar they would spread infection across the State. Some time back his Government also closed down quarantine centers meant for people coming to the State from other parts of the country. Will the people Bihar and for that matter rest of India find it credible to accept the idea of free vaccine outlined in item number one in the BJP election manifesto when Chief Minister Shri Kumar was utterly insensitive to the desperation of migrant labour from his own State to go back to their villages when their livelihood, shelter and health security got endangered in cities where they were working? Or will they take it seriously when they themselves have seen the Government of Bihar in displaying utter callousness closing down quarantine centers meant for migrant labour and those coming from outside and entering the State?
Prime Minister did not accept Odisha Naveen Patnaik's proposal to make COVID tests free of cost
It is quite ironical that the high and mighty of BJP offering free COVID vaccine to the people of Bihar were completely apathetic to Odisha Chief Minister Shri Naveen Patnaik’s suggestion to the Prime Minister in March 2020 hat COVID tests should be done free of cost in both Government and private institutes so that large number of people could be tested at a faster pace in tune with the WHO chief’s guidelines for more and more testing to identify and isolate those infected by the virus. So who would be persuaded by BJP manifesto providing free vaccine when top leaders of the party running the Union and State apparatus never paid heed to the idea of getting people tested free of cost for determining COVID Infection.
The example set by Odisha Government to treat all COVID patients of the State free of cost either in Government or private health care facilities is the first of its kind in the entire country. Had the top BJP leadership implemented the suggestion of Shri Patnaik for conducting COVID tests free of cost and had the example of Odisha Government in freely treating victims of novel coronavirus been followed then the idea of free COVID vaccine to people of Bihar would have acquired some degree of credibility.
Promise of Free Vaccine only for Bihar Contradicts Sabka Sath, Sabka Vikash
The outright partisan promise of BJP that people of Bihar would get vaccinated free of cost keeping an eye on their votes contradicts the BJP’s so-called grandiose slogan “Sabka Sath, Sabka Vikash, Sabka Viswas”. The widespread criticism of the BJP’s free vaccine poll promise is an indictment of narrow and politically motivated approach to deal with the pandemic now admittedly spreading at the community level in our country and India may soon become number one country at the global level in terms of COVID replacing the USA.
Best non-partisan Practices from Other States required for Collective Action
It is well said by a British writer that “A pandemic is the ultimate collective action problem”. We require collective action and not partisan action to manage the COVID crisis and find solutions to restore health, human and economic security. The BJP leadership need to be guided by the best practices available in many States in this regard. Kerala has adopted many measures at a far lesser cost and these have been appreciated globally. The bottom up approach involving Panchayats in testing, tracing and treating and even establishing and managing quarantine centers in several States including Odisha, Kerala and Karnataka offers us good examples for replication to fight the corona menace more effectively.
What is required is a collective and non-partisan approach based on best practices available in several States of our country to save people from the COVID disease and the multiple havocs it has caused. A politically induced free COVID vaccine election offer for getting the votes of people is will foil collective action.
.The author served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India late Shri K R Narayanan and had a tenure in Prime Minister’s Office and Joint Secretary in Rajya Sabha Secretariat. Views expressed in the article are in his personal capacity.