Election manifestoes are not usually known for prudence or their measured use of language. Yet, even in times when political parties play to sentiments and raise false expectations without compunction in the run-up to polls, the BJP’s manifesto promise for the Bihar assembly elections is remarkable. Its promise of free vaccine against COVID-19 to every “Biharwasi” is not just another instance of poll populism — it’s an attempt to manipulate the anxieties caused by the most lethal pandemic to have ravaged the world in more than a century. Union minister of finance, and senior party leader, Nirmala Sitharaman’s announcement — “the people of Bihar will get vaccination for free once the production in India is on a large scale. This is our first poll promise as mentioned in the manifesto” — reeks of desperation, and shows the BJP to be cavalier to the demands of science or requirements of administrative protocols, and to the need to respond to the stress suffered by society in the past 10 months in large and compassionate ways.
So far, the Centre and states have done a good job in pulling together for COVID management and have largely insulated the process from politics, while sharing best practices. In the past month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his cabinet colleagues and the government’s medical research agencies have indicated that a policy to deliver the vaccine is in the works. Negotiations are on with vaccine manufacturers; price discovery is weeks, if not months, away, given that no candidate has cleared the final hurdle yet. Given India’s population, the government needs to secure a reasonable price for maximum public safety; it is expected to be free for vulnerable sections, subsidised for others and the private sector is also being roped in. Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan has, rightly, cautioned that the first lot may not be available to everyone and hinted at the rudiments of a prioritising strategy focusing on health workers and people with co-morbidities. Conversations over other critical issues like the cost of a cold-chain infrastructure to transport, store and distribute the vaccine are at an incipient stage — early reports indicate that COVID-19 vaccines will need to be stored at temperatures lower than those of MMR and other traditional vaccines such as the BCG. How will resources be mobilised? Will it involve the private sector, and in what capacity? Such questions are inextricable from those of equity and transparency in vaccine distribution and require discussion. To throw the complex matter into the hustle and bustle of electioneering, making the vaccine a poll sop, is a rude rupture in a conversation that has only just begun.
BJP leaders’ argument that this is the equivalent of a “loan-waiver” announcement is specious, at best. Unlike a targeted poll sop, a COVID vaccine affects the entire population, not just a section; it is critical to the health of individuals and the community. Singling out one state as a beneficiary just because it is going to vote is bad science, bad politics —and plain wrong.