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How PM Modi checkmated the Opposition with vaccination masterstroke

·Columnist
·6-min read

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday announced that the Union government will bear the cost of vaccinating everyone over the age of 18 years and it was taking back the responsibility for procuring vaccines from states. The states have been struggling to purchase vaccines which resulted in low inoculation numbers in May 2021.

The Modi government responded positively to a growing chorus of demand from the states to re-centralise the entire process and revert to the original policy. Opposition-ruled states’ chief ministers thanked the prime minister for the move, while not forgetting to take credit.

They claimed that the Centre withdrew the ‘faulty’ vaccine policy to save its face before the Supreme Court. They claimed none of them had asked that states be allowed to procure vaccines from domestic and foreign manufactures. The famous adage ‘grapes are sour’ suits them like a ‘T’.

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“Nobody, but nobody said that [the] Centre should not procure vaccines. He (PM) now blames state govts saying - they wanted to procure vaccines so we allowed them. Let us know which CM, which state govt, on what date demanded that he should be allowed to procure vaccines,” Chidambaram said, according to an ANI tweet.

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However, soon after a letter of West Bengal Chief Minister addressed to the PM in February 2021 surfaced on social media where she wanted to start free vaccination before the Assembly polls.

“We would request you to kindly take up the matter with appropriate authority so that the state government is able to purchase the vaccines from designated points on top priority basis, because the West Bengal government wants to provide vaccination free of cost to all the people,” Banerjee wrote in her letter.

Soon, an embarrassed Chidambaram had to eat his own words: “I told ANI ‘please tell us which state government demanded that it should be allowed to directly procure vaccines’. Social media activists have posted the copy of the letter of CM, West Bengal to PM making such a request. I was wrong. I stand corrected,” Chidambaram tweeted.

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There were many reasons why Opposition-ruled states were demanding — through official as well as unofficial channels — the right to buy vaccines and inoculate their citizens. These included:

(i) PM Modi was taking all credit for vaccination

(ii) The Modi government was being allegedly partisan in dealing with them

(iii) These state governments had to face public ire for non-availability / shortages while having no control over supplies

(iv) They wanted more control over the entire vaccination drive and process

(v) The international tender process could earn some people some kickbacks (this reason can’t be ruled out given the level of corruption in India)

On April 19, the central government conceded to pressure from the state governments and allowed them to vaccinate the 18-45 age group from May 1. During this time, it was under fire for mishandling of the second wave of COVID.

There was a shortage of oxygen, beds, medicines and gloom all around. India was clocking more than 250,000 cases per day. BJP’s assertion of health being a state subject and the fact that states were managing localised lockdowns was not working on the ground.

This decision allowed Modi to make Opposition-ruled chief ministers accountable for vaccination and for saving lives. This strategy helped in a way to share the blame with state governments for mishandling of the crisis during a time when public anger was high.

Many Opposition states didn’t do much to import vaccines during the 10 odd days before the start of the drive on May 1 resulting in the programme not taking off. Some states that floated tenders did so only mid-May. None of them have been able to secure any deals.

Frustrated at their own failure, they started targeting the central government for the shortage. And finally they demanded that the Modi dispensation should procure vaccines in bulk and distribute them to states.

The complexities in procurement, including pricing, deliveries, taxation, indemnity, regulatory approvals, etc soon became known to the state governments, some of which had been boasting they could manage things on their own. There is a famous metaphor in Hindi: ‘Aatey daal ka bhav maloom hona’ (to come face to face with reality and understand it's not easy to solve some problems)..

This helped Modi prove the point that the Opposition-ruled states’ chief ministers failed to procure vaccines against their tall claims. The original centralised policy which the prime minister was leading, with India emerging as the fastest inoculator in the world, was better.

This also helped the prime minister buy time. Purchase contracts and new suppliers were firmed up leading to 216 crore doses of estimated procurement. A roadmap of vaccination for all by year-end was prepared. Cases, meanwhile, peaked and then started to drop, ending days of gloom. Positivity returned to markets with phased unlocking.

As a political consultant, I often advise clients not to make any demands from adversaries which they can fulfill easily. What if he/she accepts the demand? Then what?

The Opposition has been caught off guard by the latest Modi move of taking back the control of vaccination in the country. The states cannot criticise the announcement as the Opposition was ostensibly demanding it.

They can try to take credit but it won’t stick with people as the original centralised plan was prepared by the Modi government and not by the Opposition.

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