- BJP has promised free Covid vaccination to all in its poll manisfesto
- This promise in Bihar has become hugely controversial
- Trials of coronavirus vaccine are on in many countries, including India
The BJP's "free coronavirus vaccination for all" promise in Bihar ahead of next week's election has become hugely controversial with the ruling party fending off allegations of an "appalling" attempt to use the vaccine for its political agenda.
"As soon as a COVID-19 vaccine is available for production at a mass scale, every person in Bihar will get free vaccination. This is the first promise mentioned in our poll manifesto," Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said today, announcing the BJP's manifesto for the Bihar election.
Later, a similar announcement followed in Tamil Nadu, where elections are due next year. "Once a COVID19 vaccine is ready, it will be provided to all people of the state free of cost," announced Chief Minister E Palaniswami of the state's ruling AIADMK, a BJP ally.
There is a global race to produce a coronavirus vaccine and trials are on in many countries, including India. But this is the first time that a vaccine, especially one that is work in progress, is an election promise.
Refer to your state election schedules to know when to get the Covid vaccine, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi quipped. "Government just announced India's Covid access strategy. Kindly refer to the state-wise election schedule to know when will you get it, along with a hoard of false promises," the former Congress chief tweeted.
"What about non-BJP ruled states? Indians who didn't vote BJP will not get free Covid vaccine?" - Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) questioned.
What about non-BJP ruled states?- AAP (@AamAadmiParty) October 22, 2020
Indians who didn't vote BJP will not get free Covid vaccine? https://t.co/kjid5IC5aH
Union Minister of State for Health Ashwini Chaubey faced the question in Bihar. "The corona vaccine is being made across the world. 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," the minister told reporters.
His clarification failed to cork the deluge of criticism on social media, with some using the hashtag #vaccineelectionism.
Congress MP and former union minister Shashi Tharoor tweeted: "Tum mujhe vote do main tumhe vaccine (Give me votes, I will give you vaccine)... what appalling cynicism! Will the Election Commission rap her and her shameless government on the knuckles?"
National Conference leader Omar Abdullah called it blatant populism. "Will BJP be paying for these vaccines from the party treasury? 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," the former J&K chief minister wrote.
Will @BJP4India be paying for these vaccines from the party treasury? 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. https://t.co/ek796weG84- Omar Abdullah (@OmarAbdullah) October 22, 2020
Soon, a top Bihar BJP leader, Bhupinder Yadav, put out a clarification in response to Shashi Tharoor's post and said the vaccine would be available at a nominal cost - not free - but it would be up to states to bear the cost. "Your attempt to twist Nirmala Sitharaman's statement reeks of desperation. All parties issue manifestos. Vaccines will be made available to all Indians at nominal costs. States can make it free. In Bihar, we will," he wrote.
Your attempt to twist Smt Nirmala Sitharaman's statement reeks of desperation. All parties issue manifestos. Vaccines will be made available to all Indians at nominal costs. States can make it free. In #Bihar, we will. https://t.co/rDji6EBxuP— Bhupender Yadav (@byadavbjp) October 22, 2020
For hours, the only response to the criticism was from Amit Malviya of the BJP's IT cell, who posted: "BJP's manifesto promises free Covid vaccine. Like all programs, center will provide vaccines to states at a nominal rate. It is for the state governments to decide if they want to give it free or otherwise. Health being a state subject, Bihar BJP has decided to give it free. Simple."
The government has so far not answered questions related to vaccine delivery and pricing. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has chaired several meetings on the government's preps for storage and distribution of vaccines.