OPINION | How PM Modi Defied Petty Oppn Politics to Turn Around India's Vaccine Policy

·10-min read

Consider that you are the Prime Minister of India and this is the sequence of events facing you. What would you do?

The Background

Mamata Banerjee, twice elected (at that point of time) Chief Minister of West Bengal writes a letter to you on February 24, 2021, where among other things she says, “Government of West Bengal has decided to procure adequate number of vaccines for the members of public at large. We would request you to kindly take up the matter with appropriate authority so that State Government is able to purchase the vaccines.”

Mamata Banerjee was so convinced of the righteousness of her stand that she reminds you of her request not once but several times. For example, on April 18, 2021, she again writes, “You may recall that I had written to you on February 24, 2021 to allow the state to purchase vaccination doses directly with state funds and launch a massive free vaccination campaign in the state covering the entire population.”

Meanwhile, the much-loved Delhi’s Chief Minister among the Khan Market gang, Arvind Kejriwal, addresses the press on March 18, 2021, and among other fantastical claims, says that “I want to appeal to the central government to decentralize the system, have less control over it, and allow the state governments to administer the vaccine on a war-footing”.

Not to be left behind, Rahul Gandhi, former President of Indian National Congress, and the son of the current president of the party and thus, by design, the most important leader of the party, writes a letter to you on April 8, 2021. In this letter, among other things, Rahul Gandhi says “our states have been bypassed right from vaccine procurement to registration.” He then goes on to demand from you that “give state governments a greater say in vaccine procurement and distribution.”

Just a few days later, the very respected Chief Minister of Odisha, Naveen Patnaik, also writes a letter to you on April 17. Among other things, Naveen Patnaik writes that “COVID-19 vaccines may be made available outside the government supply chain in the open market”. He does not stop at just this but goes on to writer further that “at an appropriate time, adequate quantity of vaccines should be made available for the States to procure”.

Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha and a very senior leader of the Congress party, Anand Sharma, pitches in from the parliamentary side as well. His appeal to you is that “state governments must immediately be allowed to enter into contracts for procurement of vaccines….We are a federal country…health is a state issue. The epidemic is separate. But when it comes to healthcare, the Centre cannot control…the Centre is not constitutionally mandated to”.

The Question

So here is the question before you. Health is a state subject, as rightly pointed out by Anand Sharma. Chief ministers of states are formally writing to you that please let them purchase vaccines directly from their own funds. It is their legitimate right, they argue. What do you do? If you decide to reject their request, then on what grounds do you do so? After all, in a federal country, if the states say that they want to use their own funds on public health, then on what grounds do you reject their request?

You could say, that the states and indeed the central Congress leadership are doing politics and therefore, their requests are rejected. But could you have really predicted that they were indulging in crass politics even during a raging pandemic? Granted that not much is expected from Rahul Gandhi and no level is too low for him, but what about the chief ministers, duly elected multiple times? Or Deputy LOP? Unless there is a genuine reason, should the central government ride roughshod over them?

And so, on April 19, the liberalised third stage of vaccination drive was announced. In the first stage, from January 16 to February 1, 2021, healthcare workers were the targeted group for vaccination. From February 2 till February 28, the frontline workers were prioritised. The second stage started from March 1 when vaccination was opened up for all above 60 years of age and those above 45 years and with certain identified comorbidities. This phase was further liberalised from April 1 and became open for everyone above 45 years.

After the first two stages, the third stage was now ready for launch. Accordingly, the third phase was announced on April 19 and it came into effect on May 1, 2021.

Vaccination was now open to everyone above 18 years of age. The Centre would procure 50% of all the available domestically manufactured vaccines and supply it to states, as before, for vaccinating everyone above 45 years of age and for free of cost. In the balance 50% quota, 25% was reserved for state government quota, to be used for everyone above the age of 18 years, and as per priority decided by the state governments. The remaining 25% was for private hospitals to directly procure and vaccinate anyone above 18 years of age.

This new liberalised regime is exactly what the states wanted. Not just chief ministers, but an entire section of civil society was lobbying for months for vaccine purchase to be opened up for private sector as well. After all, the battle against Covid-19 pandemic was not that of the central government alone. It was a joint battle. So, what everyone wanted was agreed and the liberalised regime was put in place.

The U-Turn

But, as is wont, the chief ministers who were the most vocal, the entire Congress party, and much of the civil society and media influencers, were indeed only playing politics. They had no plans in place, no logistics lined up, no wherewithal to deal with the international intricacies of vaccine purchase and in many cases not even the intent to purchase.

Arvind Kejriwal had announced with much fanfare in March itself that he had prepared a plan to vaccinate entire Delhi in just 3 months. When his time came, this is what he did.

On April 26, full seven days after new policy was announced, Delhi government wrote a letter to vaccine manufacturers to indicate their terms of supply since. Then they sat and blamed others for not making their plan succeed. Then when public outcry forced them to wake up from their slumber, they sent another letter of intent on May 7. Again, not an order, but letter of intent indicating a desire to purchase vaccines. Eighteen days after the vaccination was opened up, Kejriwal’s master plan was still stuck at intent letters. No one knows how much progress he made with his intent and his master plan.

Uddhav Thackeray, the much-feted Chief Minister of Maharashtra in the Bollywood and Instagram circles, wrote a letter on May 8, 2021, where among other things he said, “The state is willing to procure the requisite stock of vaccines in a single procurement…. If the states are allowed to procure vaccines from other manufacturers as well, a large population would be covered in a shorter time and help reduce the impact of a possible third wave.”

It was now 19 days since the liberalised policy was announced. Yet, the chief minister was still writing only letters. Meanwhile, almost daily the press was reporting that some center or the other was closed in Maharashtra due to non-availability of vaccines.

Twelve senior-most leaders of the opposition wrote a letter on May 12, 2021, to the Prime Minister in which among other things they demanded that “procure vaccines centrally from all available sources”. Signatories to this letter included Sonia Gandhi, Uddhav Thackeray, Mamata Banerjee, Sharad Pawar and a few others.

The West Bengal chief minister was the first one to demand, as early as February itself, that her state be allowed to procure vaccines directly. She was now demanding, in less than two weeks of her demand being met, that the center must make vaccines available free of cost to the states!

Sonia Gandhi, by signing this letter, had annulled the earlier demands of likes of Rahul Gandhi and Anand Sharma and a host of other Congress leaders.

Uddhav Thackeray made a stunning reversal, of course, in just a matter of few days.

The Dilemma

Imagine yourself to be the Prime Minister again. You are the decision maker. How do you trust the opposition and the political class and culture they represent? They vehemently demand one thing one day and when you concede that demand, they come together to demand the exact opposite? Do they not have a stake in India’s success against this once-in-a-century pandemic? Can they not leave their politics aside for a different occasion and for the moment only focus on saving lives?

It is not as if only this hypocritical politics was being played. Other states ruled by the Congress party were, meanwhile, inventing their own little ‘scams’. In Rajasthan, more than a million doses were found in a dustbin. In Punjab, in a development which shocked perhaps no one, the state government chose to become a middleman and started selling vaccines to private hospitals at a profit! It is the national outrage that made them mend their ways.

Then there is, of course, the entire background of deliberate, cynical and downright ghastly incitement of the people of the country against domestically developed vaccines. Akhilesh Yadav, a signatory to the grand letter of 12th May, in January called the Indian vaccine a “BJP vaccine” and declared he won’t take it. His other party leaders were even cruder in their incitement.

Manish Tewari tweeted on January 13 that “is NDA/BJP making Guinea pigs out of Indians?” Shashi Tharoor tweeted on January 3 that Covaxin “approval was premature and could be dangerous”. His colleague Jairam Ramesh was equally caustic.

Chhattisgarh government, ruled by the Congress party, took the politics to a never seen before low level when the state government itself started inciting its own people against the vaccines. The state chief minister and the health minister ran a sustained campaign against Covaxin in January and February, contributing significantly to vaccine hesitancy.

The Decision

Overall, by the end of May, chief ministers of Punjab (May 15), Kerala (May 24), Sikkim (May 30), Mizoram (May 31), Meghalaya (May 31), Andhra Pradesh (June 1), Arunachal Pradesh (June 1), Odisha (June 2), Tripura (June 2) and Maharashtra (June 2) specifically wrote to the Prime Minister requesting centralised procurement of vaccines.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi could have replied to politics with politics. After all, the opposition has not let go off their crass politics even during the pandemic. But then, that is what perhaps differentiates Modi from other run of the mill politicians.

So, on June 7, a new revised vaccination policy was announced. Centre will now procure the entire lot of vaccines for everyone eligible – both from central as well as state channel – above 18 years of age and give it free of cost to the states. The 25% channel for private hospitals will continue as before. The pricing through the private channel has also been capped.

As the initial inefficiency of the first few weeks of month of May have dissipated, the vaccination pace has also picked up and it is now averaging around 30 lakhs daily. As of June 7, a total of over 23.20 crore doses have been administered, out of which 18.69 crore are unique people vaccinated with at least one dose. A total of almost 200 crore doses, without counting the likes of Pfizer or Moderna, etc, are lined up for domestic use by the end of the year 2021.

With Phase-IV of vaccination drive lined up, the second wave abating somewhat, and India’s vaccine stocks rising, our battle against the pandemic looks poised for a positive turn of events. Can we count the opposition to give up its politics? Don’t hold your breath for it. But do count on Prime Minister Modi to stand and be counted and do by what is right.

The author is CEO of Bluekraft Digital Foundation. Views expressed are personal.

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