In a rather startling turn of events, last (12 May) evening, a joint letter was drafted by major opposition parties. Addressed to the Prime Minister, the letter was a listicle on how the government must go on a ‘war footing’ and implement the suggestions of the signatory parties.
The letter was signed by Sonia Gandhi for Congress, H D Deve Gowda for Janata Dal-Secular, Sharad Pawar for the Nationalist Congress Party, Uddhav Thackeray for the Shiv Sena, Mamata Banerjee for the Trinamool Congress, M K Stalin for Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Hemant Soren for Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Farooq Abdullah for National Conference, Akhilesh Yadav for the Samajwadi Party, Tejashwi Yadav for the Rashtriya Janata Dal, D Raja for Communist Party of India, and Sitaram Yechury for the Communist Party of India-Marxist.
The letter covered nine aspects.
Firstly, the parties, in power in many states, requested the government to procure vaccines centrally from all the possible available sources, local and global.
Taking an obvious u-turn, the parties now want the vaccination process to be centralised. This is after Congress itself demanded a decentralised vaccine procurement process in early April. Given the vaccine supply problem in states like Maharashtra, West Bengal, and even Rajasthan, the parties now want the Centre to take complete responsibility.
While it would be ideal for the entire vaccine process to be centralised, this unprecedented request does raise a question about the preparedness of the state governments. Forget distribution or administration, the state governments don’t even want to get into the procurement business.
Two, the parties have demanded a free and universal mass vaccination programme. While many states have already implemented the idea, including a few ruled by the BJP, it was the spokespersons of the Congress party who were demanding the role of private players and open markets in the vaccination process.
It also makes for an easy escape for the Congress-ruled states, like Maharashtra, which have promised free vaccines for all but now appear to be in no position to deliver on that promise.
This demand also fails to take into account that more than about the pricing, it is about the vaccine hesitancy which the leaders of these parties themselves encouraged, and the backend supply issues.
Three, the parties followed the Arvind Kejriwal model, asking to invoke compulsory licensing. The letter did not specify which vaccine manufacturer was being targeted here. Assuming it was Bharat Biotech, the irony is that Congress leaders have themselves been raising questions about the efficacy of the vaccine.
The demand also does not factor in the intricacies in setting up vaccine manufacturing. Until yesterday, the same parties wanted a say in procurement, and now, they are demanding for the Centre to set up new plants, manufacture, procure, distribute, and perhaps, even administer.
The first problem is that it is not that simple to set up a plant for vaccine manufacturing. Even if the government was in a position to invoke compulsory licensing, it would take at least a couple of years before the plant could get going. Put simply, this demand does nothing to address the immediate supply problem. Perhaps, Congress should have recalled its lesson from its Maruti days.
The parties ruling in the states, for a few days now, have been working overtime to set a narrative against the Centre.
Somehow, the objective has been to convince the electorate that the government is sitting on some secret formula to create 2 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccine overnight.
Four, the letter stated that the government must spend the Rs 35,000 crore allocation, announced in the budget earlier this year on vaccines.
Earlier this week, addressing the same question, Minister of State for Finance, Anurag Thakur, stated that the Centre had used a part of the budget to supply the states and the Union Territories with 17.56 crore vaccine doses.
The minister, in a series of tweets, also elaborated on the cost structure.
The government has already paid more than Rs 3,600 crore to the Serum Institute of India for an order of more than 26.60 crore doses. Bharat Biotech was paid a total of Rs 1,104.78 crore by the government for an order of 8 crore doses.
The tweets also explained the government's expenditure on medical equipment, logistics, and other imports.
Five, the parties demanded that the government must stop the Central Vista construction, and instead use the money on expenditure for vaccines and medical equipment.
For many days now, there has been a continuous attack on the project by not only the signatory parties but also some famous and infamous people in the media.
The demand makes no sense for many reasons, for Central Vista is not the only ongoing infrastructure project in India.
A reference must be made to the American economy in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Described as a new deal for the American people by Franklin D Roosevelt, the government elected in 1932 went on a building spree, constructing everything from roads to railway lines, and from bridges to dams.
To quantify it into numbers, the US built 6,50,000 miles of road, more than 78,000 bridges, close to 1,25,000 civilian and military installations, and renovation and construction of more than 800 airports were undertaken.
Here, in India, the entire argument has been narrowed down to one project which will cost Rs 20,000 crore in the entirety of its construction duration. To put things in perspective, the budgetary allocation for vaccines is Rs 35,000 crore.
Taking a sly at the PM Cares Fund by calling it an unaccounted private trust fund, the parties demanded that the government must use the money to buy more vaccines, medical oxygen, and other medical equipment.
However, none of the parties factored in the procurements already being made with the PM Cares fund. Last (12 May) evening, the Prime Minister tweeted about 1,50,000 units of Oxycare System at a cost of Rs 322.5 crore.
In May 2020, Rs 3,100 crore was allocated from the PM Cares fund. Of the money allocated, Rs 2,000 crore was used for the purchase of 50,000 ventilators, Rs 1,000 crore was used for the migrant labourers, and another Rs 100 crore was earmarked for vaccine development.
In January 2021, the PM Cares Fund Trust allocated Rs 201.58 crore for the installation of 162 dedicated PSA medical oxygen generation plants in public health facilities, amongst other expenditures.
The letter also contained a demand to help all the unemployed (the word used in the letter was jobless) people with a monthly fund of ‘at least’ Rs 6,000. Without even getting into the fiscal consequences of the idea, one even the likes of Raghuram Rajan would not endorse, the question about how the unemployed, across states, would be counted remains.
Also, there is the question of what’s causing unemployment in the first place. If states are indeed so worried about the unemployment going up, why have they done such a poor job in curbing the virus, and why are they going for lockdowns one after the other? A lot of unemployment post the third quarter of 2020 is the doing of the lockdowns announced by the state governments.
Another demand that was made in the letter was to help the poor people with free foodgrains. What parties forgot to factor in was that the PM-GKAY (Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana) has been initiated for May and June 2021.
The scheme is in the same pattern as earlier where an additional quota of free-of-cost foodgrains at a scale of 5kg per person per month was given, over and above the regular monthly NFSA (National Food Security Act) entitlements to about 800 million people.
In the midst of the many failures, if the government can be credited with one success, it’s about ensuring food security in the rural areas for a population more than twice that of the United States of America.
If the political flavour of the letter was not visible until now, the last demand cleared it up. The letter demanded that the government should repeal the farm laws to ensure farmers go back to cropping. Clearly, the parties chose to ignore the procurement numbers for the current season.
Even at the peak of the farmer protests, the procurement from Punjab outnumbered that from other states. For wheat the numbers were: 128.66 lakh metric tonnes (LMT) from Punjab, 80.76 LMT from Haryana, 20.11 LMT from Uttar Pradesh, 94.89 LMT from Madhya Pradesh, 11.68 LMT from Rajasthan, amongst other states. The total procurement for wheat alone was more than 337 LMT.
Also, by having the government go back on the new farm laws, these parties not only want to take law-making to the streets but also surrender the legislative powers to rioters. The demand to repeal the farm laws is another way of pushing an agenda against the BJP before the 2022 Uttar Pradesh elections.
The letter reminds one of a famous image from the semi-final of the 2011 World Cup between India and Pakistan where Sachin Tendulkar was standing alone on the pitch with the entire Pakistani team in the backdrop, in a huddle.
Today, Narendra Modi stands in that position, and while the signatories to the letter are as Indian as Modi, opting to pursue politics in the middle of a pandemic showcases their lack of interest in finding actual solutions.
India’s grand opposition has given up responsibility, and this should settle the debate about the Centre-state failure, and who is responsible.
In the middle of a pandemic, by choosing to be spokespersons of protesting farmers and hindering one specific infrastructure project worth peanuts in the larger scheme of things, these parties have stated their priority — grabbing political power by pushing sponsored propaganda against the Centre.
Perhaps, Modi should indeed recentralise the entire vaccination process, for the opposition parties have simply given up.
Thus, it all comes down to one man — Narendra Modi.
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.