Free COVID vaccines

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BJP’s promise to voters of Bihar  might trigger countrywide demand

That political parties are known to play with the sentiments of the people is well known, but they choosing to promise something that is not yet available ahead of elections is something that would sound far-fetched and bizarre. The BJP manifesto for Bihar promises a free vaccine against COVID-19 to every person of the state. It does not sound rational to talk of a free vaccine when no vaccine has been developed in the country, though there are at least half a dozen projects for that going on. No vaccine has been approved for world distribution either by organisations like the World Health Organisation. A couple of months ago Russia claimed to have become the first country to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, the country’s President Vladimir Putin going to the extent of trying it on himself first in order to convince the world of its safety, but the rest of the world has not accepted the claim. As a matter of fact, Russia’s claim has been disputed by other nations and several scientific organisations.

Releasing the BJP Bihar manifesto Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said: “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.” It is hard to tell with certainty whether the voters of Bihar will vote for BJP candidates lured by this promise. There are several major issues that are at play in the state elections which are going to start on October 28. To say that the party, if elected to power, would distribute free vaccines might sound jarring and absurd to people of the state who, like the people in the rest of the country, have been engaged in a fight against the coronavirus. The COVID-19 management and treatment protocol of the government has faced criticism for many weaknesses that actually led to the upsurge in the number of infections and the mortality arising from them. People who are not satisfied with the way the government has worked in order to control the pandemic might not readily believe that the government would distribute free vaccines.

There is another issue with the BJP promise. Does it not violate the model code of conduct? The Election Commission of India is yet to take cognizance of the issue, though the opposition holds it is violative of the model code of conduct. Apart from judging the promise from the code of conduct point of view, the election authorities also need to look into the ethical issue of whether a party that is ruling at the Centre and in the state could mislead and misguide voters by giving them a false hope of free vaccines against COVID-19 at a time when the country is fighting what experts say as the biggest pandemic in over a century. This is the time for the Centre and states to concentrate on COVID management with best practices. The political parties need to insulate the war against COVID from politics.

It has been known for decades that election manifestos are released by parties only with the aim of winning over voters. They are forgotten after the results are announced. It is sad to note that politicians play with the sentiments of the people by raising false expectations in the run-up to  elections. The BJP’s promise of free vaccines to voters of Bihar might boomerang against the party, because such demands are bound to arise from other states as well. As the BJP has made the promise as a part of the government, the governments led by the party in other states are certainly going to come under pressure for making that promise. And when the BJP-led state governments are forced to make that promise, they are going to turn to the BJP-led government at the Centre to finance them in order to fulfill the promise. And the central government cannot finance only the BJP-ruled states; it has to support the Opposition-led states too. That would mean the central government has to find thousands of crores for fulfilling the nation’s hope aroused by the party’s promise to voters in Bihar.