The Bhartiya Janta Party's announcement promising free COVID-19 vaccination for everyone in poll-bound Bihar as part of its election manifesto has sparked a massive controversy.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who released the manifesto in Patna, announced free distribution of a coronavirus vaccine in the state on October 22.
A vaccine that will finally put an end to the deadly pandemic has now become a deciding factor to win polls.
Vaccine Only For Those Who Vote For BJP?
To begin with, does this mean if the voters of Bihar do not vote for BJP in the assembly polls, they will not be provided free COVID-19 vaccinations? And does it mean that those in other states will not be given the vaccines for free? And if the party loses, will a vaccine then carry a price-tag?
The absurd promise made by the BJP has not just shocked people but also left them wondering why there was a need to politicise the distribution of vaccine as every major vaccination from Polio to Smallpox has been free for the public in the country. Some even questioned if the ruling party was trying to change the trend.
The Union health ministry has said that once a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available, the government will distribute it in the same way it distributes vaccines under its Universal Immunisation Programme. As many as 12 vaccines under this programme are available to people free of cost. Similarly, novel coronavirus would also warrant its inclusion under the same programme.
Then how can a party say it will deliver a vaccine for free when it is anyway obliged to provide all citizens?
Opposition Criticises BJP For 'Opportunistic Politics'
Opposition leaders took a dig at the BJP and raised questions over the use of vaccines to strengthen political gains.
Congress also questioned whether the government will ask people to pay for the vaccine in other states.
Congress leader Shashi Tharoor asked the Election Commission to take stringent action, referring to the Modi-led government "shameless". The party's spokesperson Jaiveer Shergill also said that the BJP would be the only political party to treat coronavirus vaccine as an "election lollipop".
The Model Code of Conduct also states that the "distribution of freebies of any kind, undoubtedly, influences all people. It shakes the root of free and fair elections to a large degree". However, former chief election commissioner Vikram Sampath has said that "the political parties have a right to make such promises".
"Whether it is undue influence or not is for the voter to decide. One can't take exception to parties making poll promises," he said.
What Will PM Cares Be Used For?
Apart from using the vaccine as an election lollipop, the announcement by the BJP has also raised questions about the use of PM Cares fund which was created to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
Businesses, individuals and organisations from across the country contributed to this fund, however, soon after the government said that the fund would be spared by the Comptroller of Auditor General's scanner, questions over the transparency of the fund. With a promise to vaccinate everyone in Bihar for free, questions arise as to why was the fund created and what will it be used for?
It is crucial to understand that the promise was made by a party contesting state polls and not the central government.
The decision to deliver a vaccine for free lies with the Centre. Similarly, promising to vaccinate only one state that is poll-bound points at whether it is a government for elections or a government for all.
What the BJP referred to as a promise, was nothing less than a bribe and a blatant attempt to practice "opportunistic politics". It is not ethical for any party hoping to win elections by promising a vaccine against a virus that has infected over 70 lakh people across the country. After all, who wouldn't want a free COVID-19 vaccine in the middle of the pandemic?
Meanwhile, two other states, BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu promised free vaccine to the people as and when it comes.