There is little doubt that the impact of the second Covid-19 wave has been devastating. The health crisis was further impacted by the Centre’s vaccination procurement policy, which was severely criticised by the Supreme Court as ‘arbitrary and irrational’. After weeks of policy paralysis and criticism from the court, health experts, Opposition parties and a section of the mainstream media, last week Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a complete U-turn in India’s vaccine procurement policy: 75 per cent of the available vaccine would be procured and administered by the Centre free of charge to all citizens above the age of 18 from June 21. Call it course-correction, thanks to the Supreme Court, or an attempt to regain lost political ground and repair his battered public image, Modi’s latest vaccine programme is not only good policy thinking but also smart politics.
Laying the blame for the vaccine mess in the country at the door of state governments, Modi, in his address to the nation on June 7, also conveyed that the fault in the Centre’s vaccine procurement policy was due to the fact that he had bowed down to the pressure groups, the Opposition and sections of the media, thus absolving himself of the mess. Therefore, to resolve the subsequent chaos, Modi claimed, he was left with no choice but to take charge of the entire vaccine programme, though even now, 25 per cent of the vaccines will be available for private players, with the service charge capped at Rs 150. The political message is unambiguous: centralisation is a better solution for all ills, thus holding federalism guilty for the disorder.
Of course, Modi excels in conveying to the voters that he is indeed their biggest saviour, even if his critics point out holes in his policies. It is this underlying message that comes out explicitly in his U-turn on vaccine procurement policy. Call it clever politics or whatever, Modi has once again positioned himself as the saviour whose intervention will save the nation from the pandemic, when various state governments seemingly failed. By projecting benevolence and generosity as the underlying theme of the vaccination policy, Modi has positioned himself as India’s chief ‘vaccinator’, thus neutralising the all-round criticism he faced for the vaccine mess. This, experts believe, is the start of the process to reclaim lost political ground and goodwill. Whether it will work remains to be seen because memories of devastation the pandemic has wreaked will linger longer.
Modi knows his politics well. He also knows the importance of clever political messaging. After all, convincing his supporters and voters through well-timed and cleverly designed messaging which can absolve him of all the blame has been his forte. With his U-turn on the vaccination drive, Modi seems to have succeeded in projecting himself as a perfect answer to the stumbling vaccination drive, though he was largely responsible for it. Of course, the Opposition had a perfect chance to corner the PM on his dismal handling of the pandemic’s second wave, but he has smartly outplayed the Opposition on the tricky vaccine wicket by conveying that he will do what the state governments couldn’t do.
The true magnitude of India’s current Covid wave and the human toll may never be known or officially acknowledged. But the government and its spokespersons have claimed that India has ‘controlled’ the second wave ‘in a very short time’ and have repeatedly argued that India has handled Covid far better than richer countries – a key mantra in the BJP’s rhetorical arsenal in the debate over its pandemic management.
But the contrast between the projected image and actual capacities, as experts have pointed out, have never been so stark. The sentiment of powerlessness that the government exuded during the second wave surge was something people were never accustomed to before during the Modi government’s seven-year rule. All that the government did was to deflect the blame for the crisis on the state governments, and even adopted a decentralised vaccine procurement policy, thus leaving the state government to take the flak for the acute shortage of jabs.
But the popular mood was against the Central government and the criticism of Modi’s pandemic management was not just confined to India but extended beyond India. Thus, neutralising the criticism and reclaiming some of the lost ground was important to correct the Prime Minister’s lost credibility.
Modi, even if weakened by the crisis, is still well-entrenched and most analysts believe that he will be able to overcome his current woes, given his consummate political skills, the weakness of the Opposition parties and his proven ability to maintain his standing in voters’ eyes despite inflicting disruptive shocks since he became the Prime Minister in 2014. With his U-turn on vaccine policy, Modi has once again bounced back in the political game, though both he and his party still face a tough battle to regain control of the narrative about their handling of the crisis.
There is no denying that tough questions by the Supreme Court on the Centre’s vaccine policy and concerted pressure from political rivals led to the government’s sudden U-turn. But the pressure to prop up the PM’s falling approval ratings may have also led to the change. After all, the loss of faith in his abilities to handle the biggest health crisis in independent India is the biggest trust deficit Modi faces in his seven-year rule.
Modi’s eyes on the upcoming elections early next year may have also contributed to the change in vaccine policy, given that the BJP faces a big challenge in its sternest test in Uttar Pradesh in March 2021. This could be Modi’s first political move, as also an attempt to reclaim lost goodwill, after the devastating second Covid wave, which had a severe impact on Uttar Pradesh.
Coming back to the vaccination drive, the government has said that India will vaccinate its entire adult population by December 2021, which seems too optimistic and unlikely. However, its new vaccine policy at least provides a roadmap, though the challenges of 2021’s second half will be delivery and vaccine hesitancy. Although in absolute terms the 24.6 crore doses administered since January seems like a remarkable achievement, only about 3.4 per cent (4.65 crore) of the population has received two doses. This means it’s a long road ahead, given that 60 to 80 percent of the population needs to be covered to achieve herd immunity.
The writer is an independent senior journalist
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