On Thursday, releasing the BJP manifesto for the Bihar assembly polls, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman promised free COVID-19 vaccine for the state once it has been cleared by the ICMR. Sitharaman said: "When we reach the stage where scientists give clearance for large-scale production of the vaccine, we will make it available to the people of Bihar free of cost." The announcement created a mini political storm.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi took a swipe at the BJP, saying one has to refer to the state-wise election schedule to know when one will have access to vaccine. "GOI just announced India's COVID access strategy. Kindly refer to the state-wise election schedule to know when you will get it, along with a hoard of false promises (sic)," Gandhi said on Twitter. Shiv Sena leader Priyanka Chaturvedi also took a dig at the saffron party, saying that while the vaccine is yet to come, it has already become a part of poll rhetoric by the BJP. "The vaccine is yet to come, but it has already become a part of poll jumlas. Is the central government's responsibility not equal towards people of all states? Is the promise of a free COVID vaccine the same as the Rs 1.25 lakh crore package promised to the state in 2015," she said on Twitter.
A working vaccine for COVID-19 is neither existent nor does it look to come to fruition anytime before 2021. The Serum Institute of India (SII), which has associated with Oxford-AstraZeneca for production of their novel coronavirus vaccine, had said in early August that it had pegged vaccine prices at not more than $3 per dose (Rs 220). The coronavirus vaccine, once available, will be distributed under a special COVID-19 immunisation programme with the Centre procuring the doses directly and making it available for priority groups like the frontline workers and the elderly.
All those facts aside, the promise of free vaccine against the deadly pandemic has become a lightning rod for political parties, with leaders from across the spectrum latching on to what is clearly a very populist concern.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal on Saturday said the COVID-19 vaccine should be made available throughout the country for free, saying all the people were troubled by the coronavirus. "The whole country should get free COVID-19 vaccine. It is a right of the entire country. All the people are troubled by the coronavirus, so the vaccine should be free for the country," Kejriwal said.
Within hours of the BJP promising free COVID-19 vaccine to people of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan repeated the promise for all citizens of the bypolls-bound state. However, within an hour and a half, the chief minister retracted and rephrased his promise, saying that the vaccine will be provided free to poor people of the state who cannot afford it. Chouhan deleted his ‘free for all’ tweet after coming up with the amended promise through a video statement, which was also posted on Twitter.
A political brouhaha erupted in Tamil Nadu over promises of free vaccines. Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami had assured free COVID-19 vaccine to all, and hit out at DMK president M.K. Stalin for criticising the same. The chief minister had on Thursday assured free immunisation against coronavirus for all sections of people in the state as soon as a vaccine is made available. However, Stalin had hit out at Palaniswami saying:"It is the duty of a welfare state to provide life saving vaccination free of cost during the times of a pandemic". On Friday, the chief minister said it was a fact that vaccine alone was a "lasting solution" for coronavirus and people were eagerly waiting for it. "I had announced about the free immunisation to all the people of Tamil Nadu, once a vaccine is ready, keeping in mind the public welfare. The leader of opposition [Stalin] has got political vendetta due to the good name earned by the government for its virus-prevention activities and is issuing statements apprehensive over the surging public support. People are laughing at this," he said.
Debate over Election Commission's ruling
Amid demand by some opposition leaders for action by the Election Commission against BJP's manifesto promising free coronavirus vaccine in Bihar, officials on Thursday pointed out that the poll panel had allowed policy related promises made by various political parties, including the Congress, in the past. Officials referred to EC's official stand when it had received complaint against the Congress' 'Nyay Yojna' during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The Commission had not found the scheme violative of the model code. It had also said that the scheme did seem to have come under the domain of corrupt practices as enshrined in the Representation of the People Act, 1951.
Three former chief election commissioners on Friday said the BJP's move cannot be legally faulted. But, the move does raise ethical question as the model code of conduct is all about ethics, said S.Y. Quraishi, who served as the poll panel chief between 2010 and 2012. O.P. Rawat, who retired as the chief election commissioner in December 2018, reminded that the Supreme Court had made it clear that a party promising something in its manifesto should also mention the budgetary provisions it would put in place to fulfil the promise. One can put anything in the manifesto, but the Supreme Court has ruled that parties have to explain the budgetary provision required to fulfil the promise, Rawat said.
-Inputs from PTI