Patna/New Delhi: In a poll campaign that is veering around the pandemic in Bihar, the BJP made an audacious poll pitch on Thursday with a promise of a free coronavirus vaccine and an assurance of 19 lakh jobs to be generated over the next five years, if the ruling NDA is re-elected.
It was not an off-the-cuff remark. Rather, choosing her words carefully, acutely aware of the poll gambit, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said while releasing the BJP manifesto in Patna: "As soon as a coronavirus vaccine is available for production at a mass scale, every person in Bihar will get free vaccination. This is the first promise mentioned in our poll manifesto."
But the party’s 'BJP hai to bharosa hai' tagline seemed to flounder in no time. Because after her announcement, there were at least two clarifications and addendums. While MoS Health Ashwini Chaubey assured that the free COVID-19 vaccine would be available to people across the country, irrespective of the state they belonged to, BJP IT Cell Chief Amit Malviya explained that the Centre would provide vaccines to the states at a "nominal rate". As he explained, it was then up to the state government to decide whether it would be given for free.
While it made sense for the BJP to ride on the pandemic and reach out to over 7.20 crore voters in the state who are not too happy at the manner in which Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has handled the virus outbreak, the RJD latched onto the faux-pas and declared that the saffron party was politicising the pandemic and "selling the fear of death".
In a tweet, the RJD said, "Corona ka teeka desh ka hai, BJP ka nahi! Teeka ka rajnitik istemaal dikhata hai ki inke paas bimaari aur maut ka bhaye bechane ke alawa koie vikalp nahi hai. Bihari swabhimaani hain, chand paison mein apne baccho ka bhavishya nahi bechate."
The BJP, it was apparent, had goofed big time by stoking the lurking fears and paranoid about the pandemic and the Opposition parties lost no time in demanding action by the Election Commission, alleging that the ruling party was milking the outbreak for political gains.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, at his sarcastic best, took a swipe at the BJP, saying one has to refer to the state-wise election schedule to ascertain when one will have access to the vaccine.
Congress leader Shashi Tharoor tweeted a video of Union minister Nirmala Sitharaman, saying, "You give me vote, I will give you vaccine...What appalling cynicism! Will the EC rap her and her shameless Government on the knuckles?"
Chhattisgarh Health Minister T S Singh Deo said a free COVID vaccine is a right of every citizen. "The EC must take suo motu cognisance as the Modi government can't be selective about free access to COVID vaccine depending on electoral results," he added.
There was no word from EC on the issue.
"The NDA government in Bihar has set an example before the country in the fight against corona. It's our resolve that once the vaccine against the coronavirus has been cleared by the ICMR, we will make it available to the people of Bihar free of cost," said the manifesto, going into deatails.
SP leader Akhilesh Yadav wondered "why such a declaration was not made for UP and other states. The people of Uttar Pradesh will give a fitting reply to such opportunistic and petty politics of the BJP in the upcoming elections," he said in a tweet in Hindi.
NC leader Omar Abdullah asked whether the BJP will pay for the COVID vaccine from its own coffers.
"If it's coming from the government treasury then how can Bihar get free vaccines while the rest of the country has to pay out of its pocket?" he tweeted.
Bihar Deputy CM Sushil Kumar Modi went into damage control and said it was BJP's manifesto for Bihar and not for the entire country. He said since health is a state subject, it is up to the state to promise whether it would provide the vaccine free to its people.
BJP's Amit Malviya said the Centre will provide the vaccines to states at a nominal rate and it is for the state governments to provide it free to its people.
BJP general secretary (organisation) B L Santhosh claimed that the free vaccine promise has got huge traction.
Shiv Sena leader Priyanka Chaturvedi said, "The vaccine is yet to come, but it has already become a part of poll 'jumlas' (rhetoric). Shouldn't the central government's responsibility be equal towards people of all states?’’
Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said the BJP was mocking the people; since there will be no vaccine for another year, how can the BJP provide it? "This is a complete contradiction and a fraud being played with the people of Bihar," he alleged.
TMC leader Saugata Ray also said that it was "irresponsible" of the finance minister to promise the vaccine, even when it is yet to be approved officially.