BLINDSIDED by the second Covid wave that brought out in harsh relief how the Centre dropped the ball on Covid management — from detecting the variant to stockpiling vaccines — Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation Monday was more than mere course-correction.
By making vaccines free, taking over their procurement and extending food rations to November, Modi tried to turn the tables on the Opposition, deflect growing heat from the Supreme Court and give fresh action points to his beleaguered party.
The political framing of his address was unmistakable. Timed with the falling Covid second wave and reducing public anxieties, Modi’s references to “decades of wait” for other vaccines in previous (read Congress) governments was a clear rallying message to his base.
By choosing to address the nation, he sought to project he was coming to the rescue of state governments throwing up their hands overwhelmed by the challenge of just 25% procurement. Given how the Centre’s vaccination policy has come under severe criticism amid the fierce second wave, Modi used the occasion to take credit for the correction by laying the blame at the doorstep of — mainly Opposition — state governments. At the same time, securing bragging rights over the next few months when vaccine supplies are likely to improve.
However, there was no explanation about the differential pricing for public procurement of vaccines by Centre and states and emergent supply constraint of the last few weeks. Instead, he sought to highlight the “war-like” efforts to meet the surge in demand for oxygen and drugs.
Indeed, pricing and procurement were the exact two issues strongly flagged by the Supreme Court. On May 31, a three-judge bench, headed by Justice D Y Chandrachud, last week called the decision to make the 18-45 age group pay for vaccination “prima facie arbitrary and irrational” and asked the Centre to “undertake a fresh review” of this vaccination policy and file an affidavit in two weeks.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta had assured the court then that no policy is etched in stone suggesting that a rethink was in the offing.
Modi’s reversal may have hoped to steal some of the court’s thunder but fault-lines are expected to endure given emerging trends in vaccine inequity and the need to ramp up vaccination and include children.
For the record, some leaders from the Opposition and Opposition state governments had attacked the centralisation of the Covid response. On April 19, as oxygen panic gripped cities and the daily case load touched 2 lakh and was climbing, the Modi government quickly handed over 50% of vaccine procurement and administration (25% each to states and private sector) and opened it to the 18-45 age group.
Taken aback by this sudden passing of responsibility, most states tried to put up a brave front announcing free vaccination and global tenders only to realise that the Centre had not apprised them of supply bottlenecks with manufacturers.
Within a month, the chorus began for the Centre to take over. Pinarayi Vijayan, re-elected as Kerala CM for a historic second consecutive term, wrote to almost a dozen non-BJP CMs on June 1 urging them to join in asking the Centre to procure vaccines for states and distribute them free for the 18-45 age group as well.
Sensing this growing consensus, the BJP, too, started making moves to blunt the opposition. Speaking at Idea Exchange at The Indian Express, BJP CM of Madhya Pradesh Shivraj Singh Chouhan suggested that the Centre may reconsider its policy if all states appealed to the Prime Minister as a united front.
Chief Ministers of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, whose regional parties often lend a helping hand to the BJP in Parliament, also wrote to the Centre echoing this. The die was cast.
The reversal also aims to calm anxiety within the ruling establishment. “Announcing vaccination for the 18-45 age group from May 1 under pressure from Opposition was a mistake,” a Union Minister recently admitted. “Such mistakes happen when you have to speed up vaccination in a billion plus population.”
“There will always be pressure from the public and opposition. You have to do the right thing amid these pressures and not yield without doing your homework as seemed to have happened on opening up vaccination,” said a senior RSS office-bearer.