COVID-19

India's vaccination policy: A U-turn and a spin

Print edition : July 02, 2021

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the nation on June 7. Photo: PTI

Kerala Health Minister Veena George moves a resolution urging the Centre to provide free vaccines to all, in the Assembly on June 2. Photo: Sabha TV/Youtube Screengrab

Naveen Patnaik , Chief Minister of Odisha. Photo: BISWARANJAN ROUT

Akhilesh Yadav , president of the Samajwadi Party. Photo: PTI

Pinarayi Vijayan , Chief Minister of Kerala. Photo: PTI

Intense pressure from the opposition and the Supreme Court’s reprimand force the Prime Minister to announce free vaccination for all in the 18-44 age group, but the Sangh Parivar propaganda machine is busy lionising Modi for the revised policy.

“The adeptness of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its associates in the Sangh Parivar at the politics of appropriation is well known. Throughout its history, the political instruments of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) have sought to portray the contributions of many historical figures as their own and, in contemporary times, the governments of Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh and Narendra Modi at the Centre have repeatedly tried to present the governance gains of earlier Ministries led by other parties as their own. Indeed, this is a vulgar political record, but the latest propaganda drive that the Union government and the BJP are trying to launch on the basis of the revised vaccine policy announced by the Prime Minister recently must rate as one of the grossest, even by the Sangh Parivar’s abominably low standards of political morality.”

This was how Akhilesh Yadav, president of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh (U.P.), characterised the attempts by the Central government and the Sangh Parivar to build a political narrative around Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s June 7 announcement of the revised vaccine policy.

Akhilesh Yadav went on to explain that “it is clear as daylight that the government was literally forced to alter its denial of free COVID vaccine for all on account of the consistent demands made by opposition parties and many governments led by the opposition, as well as the strong message sent out by the Supreme Court on the right of people to have vaccines”.

He added: “But, in a pathetic political display, the BJP leadership is trying to sweep this truth under the carpet and create a portrayal that the policy had emerged from under the Prime Minister’s hat. This, however, should not come as a surprise. We, in Uttar Pradesh, see, after almost every single meeting of the Adityanath Cabinet, as to how the welfare projects launched by Samajwadi Party governments of the past are appropriated and passed as their own, of course with new nomenclatures.”

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Akhilesh Yadav said: “These very people have tried, through several decades, to appropriate the legacy of historical figures like Bhagat Singh and Bhimrao Ambedkar. Even though their ideological lineage is clearly with the assassins of Mahatma Gandhi, they sought to rope in the ‘father of the nation’ as their icon by inventing the nomenclature of ‘Gandhian socialism’ and parading themselves as the advocates of this philosophy.”

Even a cursory perusal of the chronology of the government’s actions and declarations related to India’s COVID vaccine policy will bear out Akhilesh’s observations. As recently as the third week of April, the Modi government had categorically asserted that those in the 18-44 age group would not be eligible for free vaccination at Central government-run hospitals. This was originally announced by R.S. Sharma, Chief Executive Officer of the National Health Authority, and later reiterated by many Central Ministers as well as BJP leaders.

Pressure from many sides

There was no change in this position even though several non-BJP State governments as well as opposition parties ranging from the Congress and the S.P. to the Left parties led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) repeatedly called for free universal vaccination.

They followed up their demand with concrete moves, including some administrative forays, in early June. Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and his Odisha counterpart, Naveen Patnaik, wrote to Chief Ministers on the need for centralised vaccine procurement, while the Kerala Assembly went one step further by passing a resolution in this regard.

The resolution, moved by Health Minister Veena George, pointed out that the most suitable preventive step against the pandemic was universal vaccination and emphasised that asking the States to procure vaccines from the open market was highly objectionable. Although the resolution was unanimously passed, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) opposition raised points criticising the State government’s management of the pandemic.

A key demand made by the Assembly resolution was that the Centre should float a global tender to procure vaccines for the entire country. “The financial gains of such a step will not be small,” the resolution noted. It went on to state that the Centre ought to invoke compulsory licensing provisions to enable public sector pharmaceutical companies to manufacture vaccines and ramp up supply.

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It said: “To fight the pandemic, we need to provide free universal vaccination which will ensure that all sections of the society are protected from the virus. The Union government can’t shirk its responsibility and leave everything to [the] States. It has to ensure vaccination in a time-bound manner.”

In his letter to Chief Ministers, Naveen Patnaik said: “Many States have floated global tenders…. However, it is quite clear that the global vaccine manufacturers are looking forward to the Union government for clearances and assurances. They are unwilling to get into supply contracts with the State governments. The domestic vaccine manufacturers are having supply constraints and are not able to commit required supplies.”

Adding to the pressure on the Centre, Mamata Banerjee and Hemant Soren, Chief Ministers of West Bengal and Jharkhand, also raised the issue at public platforms and in media interviews.

Supreme Court weighs in

In an order uploaded on the Supreme Court web site on June 1, 2021, the apex court asked the Union government for a vaccine roadmap and bluntly declared as “arbitrary and irrational”.its policy of not sanctioning free vaccination for those between 18 and 44.

Literally directing the Centre to “undertake a fresh review of its vaccination policy addressing the concerns raised”, a bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud, L. Nageswara Rao and S. Ravindra Bhat sought detailed information from the government in the form of an affidavit. “Our Constitution does not envisage courts to be silent spectators when constitutional rights of citizens are infringed by Executive policies,”it said.

The cumulative effect of all these developments was so powerful that Prime Minister Modi was constrained to respond. Still, the top leadership of the BJP and the government contemplated issues relating to free vaccine supply for nearly a week after these multidimensional interventions. It was at the end of it all that Modi’s announcement was made.

Some BJP insiders who are privy to the goings-on in the government told Frontline that the central point in these week-long ruminations was, of course, the possible political impact of the change in vaccination policy. However, the party decided to change the policy line, and its leaders insisted that Modi should once again unleash his “histrionics” and launch a frontal political attack on the opposition for the “confusion” in the vaccine policy.

When Modi finally appeared on television at 5 p.m. on June 7, the rhetoric was clearly on these lines.

Apparently, there was agreement in the party-level deliberations prior to the June 7 proclamation that the Modi government was facing its worst phase in its seven- year rule. Speaking to Frontline, a senior RSS activist based in Lucknow said: “There was agreement that Modi, during his tenure as Prime Minister, has never been challenged and cornered in a way as he is now. The second wave of COVID has generated unprecedented popular anger against the authorities, particularly the Modi government. The electoral defeat in West Bengal and the churning among the Trinamool Congress turncoats, who were getting increasingly irascible against the BJP leadership, left a sizeable segment of the BJP’s hardcore supporters disillusioned and bitter.” Modi’s June 7 declaration was aimed, at the very least, to start reversing this inimical trend.

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The verdict on Modi’s June 7 performance is still not out within the Sangh Parivar. The fact that there are pointed questions as to how the new vaccination guidelines would roll out, especially in the background of the government’s overt commitment to hand over 25 per cent of the vaccines to private players, is apparently a factor in delaying an internal evaluation of the June 7 performance.

The Parivar fears that in the worst case scenario, this proclamation too would get exposed as a ‘jumla’ (sleight of hand).The reference is to a statement made by Home Minister Amit Shah, where he denoted as ‘jumla’ Modi’s 2014 general election promise to bring back ill-gotten money stashed by Indians abroad and deposit Rs.15 lakh in the account of every Indian.

Despite all these doubts and apprehensions, the Hindutva combine’s propaganda machine meanders on, with some hits, mishits and reverses.

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