On Thursday, India’s Union minister of finance made an unusual declaration. “The people of Bihar will get vaccination for free once the production in India is on a large scale,” said Nirmala Sitharaman in a press conference. “This is our first poll promise as mentioned in the manifesto.”
The pitch was of course made with the aim of winning votes in the upcoming Assembly elections in Bihar, where the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance is in a bruising battle with the Rashtriya Janata Dal-led alliance.
Making promises to win an election is par for the course in a democracy. But in this case the BJP has kicked off an unethical race to the bottom that could have deleterious effects on India’s battle against the Covid-19 pandemic.
To begin with, this is likely to be a violation of the model code of conduct, which seeks to prevent incumbent governments from unfairly influencing elections given their control of the administrative machinery. It is clear the Union government will have a significant role to play in distributing any future vaccine and this declaration by a senior Union minister makes it seem as if the BJP is using its control of the Union government to bribe Biharis to vote for it in the Assembly elections.
To make things worse is the fact that the BJP is linking a factor as critical as the Covid-19 vaccine to results in a state election. Delivering a vaccine to 130 crore Indians is a highly complex task. It needs to be approached as a national issue rather than be linked to partisan party politics in one state.
Till now, there is little clarity on how vaccine delivery will work through India’s federal apparatus as well as the country’s poor state capacity. However, the newly set up National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration has made it clear that vaccine procurement will be a federal decision and it has advised states to not to chart separate pathways of procurement.
Even while there is little clarity on how vaccine procurement will work, the head of the BJP’s IT Cell jumped in on Thursday with a plan. “Like all programmes, Centre will provide vaccines to state at a nominal rate,” tweeted Amit Malviya. “It is for the state governments to decide if they want to give it for free.”
Like Sitharaman using her heft as a Union minister to influence Bihar, this was an equally troubling incident. Here was a BJP functionary announcing Union government policy on something as critical as a Covid vaccine. This represents a dangerous dissolution of the boundaries between party and government.
Moreover, if one state provides free vaccines for Covid-19, this will set off a political race where every state will be forced to do so. Given the poor position of state finances, this would in turn mean that Union government would need to foot the cost – probably under its Universal Immunisation Programme, which till now covers vaccines for nine diseases.
The BJP’s Bihar announcement therefore throws up the question: is the Union government indeed ready to do this? And if so, what is the roadmap? The answers to these questions need to have been thought of before the BJP’s poll promise in Bihar.
India’s Covid-19 response till now has been dissapointing, with a very high number of cases as well as massive hits to the economy. The BJP must realise that as the ruling party in the Union government it needs to place its job of battling the virus above a state election. To reduce any part of the fight to save lives from Covid-19 to an election sop is a low Indian politics should not sink to.