As Covid alarm bells continued to ring, the battle to tackle the pandemic also set off a political firestorm between the BJP government and the opposition Congress. And the spark was the letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi Sunday by his predecessor Manmohan Singh suggesting five steps to deal with the situation.
A day after Singh wrote to Modi asking him to make vaccine orders public and give states flexibility to expand the categories of those eligible, Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan wrote a strong letter to Singh accusing Congress leaders and party-ruled states of “spreading falsehoods” and “fuelling vaccine hesitancy… playing with the lives of our countrymen.”
Vardhan said “irresponsible public pronouncements” by some Congress leaders have resulted in a “below national average vaccination coverage of senior citizens and even front-line workers in some of the Congress-ruled states” and argued “it is these very same states that have also become the big contributors in the second wave.”
He prefaced his letter with a tweet “History shall be kinder to you Dr Manmohan Singh ji if your offer of ‘constructive cooperation’ and valuable advice was followed by your…leaders as well in such extraordinary times !”
Asked about his legacy, Singh had during a media interaction in 2014 famously said that “history will be kinder to me than the contemporary media, or for that matter, the Opposition parties in Parliament.”
Hours after Vardhan’s letter, the Centre announced a new vaccination policy — opening it to all citizens over 18 from May 1 and asking vaccine manufacturers to sell 50 per cent of the doses to the states and in the open market at a pre-declared price.
The Congress hit back with Leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel attacking Vardhan for seeing politics in Singh’s “sane advice.”
Senior Congress leader P Chidambaram said: “The nation is gratified to know that practically all the suggestions in Dr Manmohan Singh’s letter have been accepted by the government. Better late than never.”
Last week, in another letter, the Health Ministry had accused the Opposition-ruled second-wave surge states of “politicizing” a public health issue, “spreading lies” and “shifting goalposts.”
Yet, under fire over the massive surge in Covid numbers and the leadership exhorting large crowds in West Bengal, the BJP announced it was scaling down its campaign rallies there — saying Prime Minister Modi will now hold only small public meetings in the state with not more than 500 people in attendance.
Meanwhile, Singh, 88, tested Covid positive and was admitted to AIIMS Monday evening. Prime Minister Modi wished Singh “good health and a speedy recovery.” There was no word from Vardhan.
In his letter, Vardhan told Singh, that “while you very well understand the importance of vaccination as an important method of fighting the Covid 19 battle, people in responsible positions in your party as well as in the state governments formed by your party do not seem to share your view.”
He then went on to say that “a sitting chief minister of your party created a dubious world record of sorts by being the only head of government directly inciting people against an indigenously developed vaccine! Some Congress leaders even shamed the vaccines in public but took their doses in private, quietly.”
Asked if this was a reference to his government, Baghel said: “I have never said anything. Our Health Minister (T S Singh Deo) had raised concerns (over Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin) because the phase three trials were not completed. I myself have taken Covaxin. I have taken one dose. I have not said a word. Had I raised questions (on the efficacy of the vaccines) how could we have vaccinated 17 per cent of our population? We never stopped vaccination. Such remarks only show his mental bankruptcy.”
In his letter, Vardhan said that Singh’s suggestions on allowing import of vaccines and the one regarding providing funds and other concessions to augment vaccine manufacturing have already been approved by the Government earlier this month.
Said Kharge: “Thousands of people are dying and lakhs are infected, there is shortage of Remdesivir, ICU beds, masks and PPE kits…the situation is worsening by the day…at such a time when a former Prime Minister writes a letter giving suggestions…it should be taken seriously and not condemned.”
“They have made Harsh Vardhan write the letter to condemn Singh’s suggestions. I think even Harsh Vardhan may not have written such a letter willingly and from his heart,” Kharge said.
Gehlot added: “Any suggestion given by any person or political party to the Central government is treated as criticism and is not tolerated.”