It would have been great, had Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in his address to the nation on 7 June that the Centre would vaccinate every citizen above the age of 18 free of charge. Without ambiguity. It would have been redemption, however partial, of a commitment made on 29 October 2020. But chance, as they say, would be a fine thing. The Prime Minister’s announcement was, as ever, vitiated by ifs and buts and crucial logistical non-sequiturs.
Let us begin with the crises caused by the dire delay in the announcement that the Union government would provide vaccines free to all adults, not to mention the incompetence involved in shifting the goalposts at and for the convenience of the regime in Delhi and the party that runs it, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Modi said in his address that the Centre would procure and distribute to the states 75% of vaccines, while private facilities would buy the rest from manufacturers. Displaying once again the penchant for obfuscation, he also said that the previous system of partially-decentralised procurement had been instituted because state governments had demanded it. The fact is that the Modi regime’s handling of the vaccination programme, like its handling of the pandemic in general, has been excruciatingly incompetent: marked by strategies to ‘manage perceptions’, in other words, corner whatever credit accidentally falls due and spread around the bucket-loads of blame it should rightly shoulder; and the frequent about-turns necessitated by an all-consuming vacuity.
Look at the shape-shifting scope of the vaccination programme. First, as mentioned, Modi said everyone would be vaccinated. Then, the Union Health Ministry announced on more than one occasion that the target group would be limited—several numbers were thrown around. Now the universal adult vaccination objective has been revived, rhetorically. Then, there is the issue of managing doses. First, the Centre set a four-to-six-week gap despite expert opinions urging a longer one. Then it increased the gap from six to eight weeks, supposedly ‘following the science’, but actually following immediate contingencies, enveloped in a fog of utter cluelessness. That was stretched to 12 to 16 weeks when vaccines had become a scarce commodity.
Finally, we come to procurement and distribution. As we all know, the Centre invoked the Disaster Management Act, 2005, and the Epidemic Act, 1897, in March 2020, centralising powers of dealing with the pandemic—even asking state governments last year to not buy PPE kits, masks, gloves and ventilators as the Centre alone would procure them and then controlling the movement of migrant workers as well. The regime used these centralising powers to roll out the vaccination programme, giving states the power to procure vaccines only when it realised that it had both messed up the job of containing the pandemic by taking its eyes off the ball and thumping its chest; and the vaccination programme by not taking steps to ensure adequate manufacture, procurement and distribution. In other words, when vaccination centres were closing down all over the country.
The central administration is in complete shambles, with the states on the frontline. India seems to be emerging from the second wave—bruised, battered and badly scathed. That matters are not substantially worse is mostly thanks to state administrations, working under the cosh. It is in this context, and solely in this context, that Modi’s pivot must be seen. And this context is framed by the incessant attempts to deflect blame and attention by unleashing a barrage of untruths.
The argument that Modi is peddling is based on falsehood. States have been batting for central procurement and distribution of vaccines from the start. The pleas sent to the Centre have increased in pitch and volume since April. But even if we were to accept Modi’s statement that his regime had decentralised because the states had asked for it, would that mean he has now centralised not because his government thinks it the right thing to do but because the states want his government to do so?
If the opinion of the states is what sets the Modi regime’s agenda, why is there so much central overreach in the affairs of the nation? Were the states respectfully consulted about demonetisation? Or the botched rollout of the Goods and Services Tax (GST)? Why has the Modi regime failed to meet the demands of the states over the sharing of GST revenues? Trying to shift the onus of the regime’s chaotic vaccination policy won’t work, just as its attempt to shift blame for its shameful treatment of migrant workers over a year ago didn’t.
Let us for a moment take the PM’s claims about his regime’s new vaccination strategy at face value. It still begs issues of track record, fair play and equity. People across the country—and not just those who can afford it—have forked out for their jabs. Many have had to stand in queues through the night and go home without getting one. States have procured millions of jabs on their own account. West Bengal, for instance, has already spent Rs.150 crores on vaccines. There are logistical issues as well. It has been reported that there could be a temporary oversupply problem in Bengal, given that it had already procured 2.1 million doses since early May, with another 1.9 million on the way. Payment has been made. We can surmise that Bengal is not alone in facing such problems.
But the crucial logistical question is about the 75:25 formula. Modi has said that the Centre is going to acquire 75 per cent. Of what? Is there some set-in-aspic volume of doses ‘out there’? Or are vaccines being produced every day, thus increasing the total volume available? Even the target group is not static. Young people are turning 18, one presumes, daily, thus changing the fundamental number: that of people who are to be vaccinated. Thus, to reiterate, how is the Centre going to dynamically apportion vaccine doses between itself and the private sector? Or is this just about smoke and mirrors? Another catastrophic attempt at image management?
We will soon found out exactly what the new, nth, wave of chaos will bring. But hard questions remain about shortages of oxygen, medicines and hospital beds. And about needless deaths. There can be no doubting that the Modi regime has blundered by keeping its eyes fixed solely on electoral compulsions. Winning elections is what Modi’s BJP has made its métier. What follows is inconsequential—to it.
This brings us to the question of motives. It would be unfair to say that Modi’s pivot has been actuated by its diminishment in the public reckoning and that won’t do because important elections are on the horizon. After all, one reason why proper governments try to govern well is because that makes people vote them back to power. It might, however, be fair to say that this sudden concern about vaccinating people and saving lives does have some connection with pointed observations made by the Supreme Court on 2 June on the Centre’s vaccination policy concerning pricing, funds and responsibility, and its direction for responses on several issues.
It is clear that the top court wants answers and it is unlikely that the important issues can be indefinitely dodged. In such vigilance, the citizenry will be happy to entrust its hopes.
The writer is an independent journalist and researcher. The views are personal.