The Bharatiya Janata Party on Thursday landed in a controversy after Opposition leaders, journalists and social media users criticised its promise to provide “free coronavirus vaccination for all” in its manifesto for poll-bound Bihar.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who released the manifesto in Patna, said the first promise in it is free distribution of a vaccine against the coronavirus. Opposition leaders took exception to the promise and raised questions over the use of vaccines to further political agenda. Others raised doubts if states which are not poll-bound will receive the same treatment or not.

Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s biggest opponent in the Bihar Assembly elections, tweeted that the vaccine belongs to India and not just to the saffron party.

The Congress questioned whether the government will make people pay for the vaccine in other states. “Every major vaccination programme from Polio to Smallpox has been free for our citizens, does BJP intend to reverse that?” the party tweeted.

Congress leader Shashi Tharoor asked the Election Commission to take action, calling the Narendra Modi government “shameless”, while the party’s spokesperson Jaiveer Shergill remarked that the BJP would be the only political party to treat coronavirus vaccine as an “election lollipop”.

Former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi took a dig at the poll promise, saying that the government has announced its Covid-19 access strategy and people would have to refer to the statewise election schedule to know when they would get a vaccine, “along with a hoard of false promises”.

The Aam Aadmi Party wondered if those who have not voted for the BJP will not get free vaccines.

National Conference leader Omar Abdullah called it “blatant populism”. “Will BJP be paying for these vaccines from the party treasury,” he asked. “If it’s coming from the government treasury then how can Bihar get free vaccines while the rest of the country has to pay? There is so much wrong with this blatant populism that shamefully exploits Covid fears.”

Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav termed the poll promise as “opportunistic politics”.

Former Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan said the manifesto suggested that the BJP was using vaccine politics to win the Bihar polls. “Singling out one state for free vaccines for a political advantage is blatantly unfair, illegal and inhuman,” he added.

Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) Liberation member and women rights’ activist Kavita Krishnan hit out at the BJP government, asking if Modi said that Covid-19 was not gone just to violate the code of conduct during the polls and link the vaccine to Bihar elections to help his party get votes.

Activist Saket Gokhale said he has filed a complaint with the Election Commission of India regarding BJP’s announcement. “This is not only discriminatory but also a false promise & blatant misuse of Central Govt. powers during elections,” he tweeted, tagging a copy of the complaint.

Journalists too raised questions on BJP’s promise, calling the free vaccine promise a “veiled threat” and “indefensibly outrageous”.

BJP’s clarifications differ

As the poll promise sparked a row, the BJP clarified its stance on the matter. However, two different versions were offered.

Speaking to reporters during his visit to Bihar, Union Minister of State for Health Ashwini Chaubey said every state will be given free vaccines, according to NDTV. “The corona vaccine is being made across the world,” he said. “When it is ready, we have prepared an elaborate plan on distributing the vaccine, who will be given preference etc...Every state will be given free coronavirus vaccine.”

On the other hand, the party’s Information Technology cell head Amit Malviya tweeted that the Centre will provide vaccines to the states at “nominal rates” and it would be up to respective state governments whether to give them for free or not.

BJP’s National General Secretary (Organisation) BL Santosh stood by the poll promise, accusing the critics of ridiculing the proposal. “It’s our resolve whenever vaccine is available in whatever quantity it may be, it will be provided free in Bihar,” he tweeted.