Monday was a day of big political calls taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he decided to open up vaccination for all adults from May 1 in the private sector and drastically reduced the scale of his own and BJP's campaign in West Bengal. Even till a few days back, the bureaucrats like NITI Aayog's VK Paul and Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan were citing the international experience with vaccination and World Health Organisation (WHO) protocols to steadfastly make a case of not opening up vaccination yet for those below 45 years of age. Electoral compulsions were argued by senior BJP leaders like Ravi Shankar Prasad till Monday morning in Kolkata to not scale down the BJP’s poll campaign and the ball was thrown into the Election Commission's court to take the call. But the Modi government was facing stiff political opposition on both these counts.
This prompted Modi to take a political decision on both these fronts on Monday after marathon meetings with his top bureaucratic team on vaccination and the BJP top brass on the West Bengal elections. There was a sense inside the party that the public sentiment seemed to run afoul of vaccination not being available for the younger working population amidst a strong second wave which is infecting the young more. The government is now describing the new step as starting the “world's most liberal vaccination program” from May 1. Similarly, the optics were not favourable for the BJP with the party campaigners doing a battery of road shows and big rallies in West Bengal at a time when Covid second wave is raging and all other parties in the fray announced scaling down their campaigns. PM Modi on Monday, in fact, urged the BJP to mobilise their entire cadre in the spirit of Seva (service) in these tough times.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has for long been pressing for universal vaccination, along with CMs of the worst-affected states like Maharashtra and Delhi who wanted states be given the flexibility to directly buy vaccines from manufacturers instead of the centralized system presently which has been accused by opposition-led states of political bias. In West Bengal, Gandhi was the first to announce he would not campaign anymore in wake of Covid. Though the Congress has not much stake in Bengal, Gandhi's call prompted CM Mamata Banerjee to also announce a scaled down campaign, leaving the BJP politically isolated even as its top leaders Amit Shah and JP Nadda were doing 4-5 big public events daily.
The course-correction on both the vaccination and the election campaign is a rare occasion when the Modi-led BJP has reconsidered its position with a political call. "Now, all freedom is being given to the states in the vaccination front. Let's see how they handle vaccination now on as they do not have the luxury anymore to politically blame the Centre if things do not go as planned," a political source said.
Sources in the government did argue that there was a method to the new decisions, saying the new assessment showed vaccination for the 45+ age group had progressed well and nearly half of the senior citizens in the country had already been vaccinated. "The issue is when to begin vaccination for larger age groups, after assessing the state capacities and the ability to handle adverse reactions to the vaccine. One has to go slowly in the start, as has every country. The scale-up has happened now effective from May 1 as we are more confident of the capacity," a senior official in the government said. The government statement referred to the important point that "a good amount of coverage if vulnerable groups is expected by April 30". However, the fact is that the government bureaucrats till recently had hinted towards lowering the eligible age-groups slightly by May and not all adults.
Allowing states, private parties and private hospitals to buy vaccines directly from vaccine manufacturers and even allowing them import of the vaccines without bridging trials is another major step to vaccinate all above 18 years of age, sources said. "The government is only seeking 50% supply from Vaccine manufacturers of their monthly Central Drugs Laboratory (CDL) released doses but has not sought any share in the import of vaccines which is open totally to the private sector," a source pointed out. This step will also allow the corporates to vaccinate their staff through their own arrangements so that the young working population becomes safe from Covid in due course and the economy does not get jammed like in 2020.
About Bengal, a senior political leader of the BJP in the state told News18 that party was not worried over a scaled-down campaign (public meetings with less than 500 people) over the next one week left in the campaign. "We are already winning over 200 seats. Congress called off its campaign because it anyways has no chance here while the CMs rallies have never got over 1000-2000 people," the BJP leader said.