New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have led the country into its second round of Covid vaccinations by becoming the first to receive the shot Monday but his association with the opening round of the campaign has generated controversy.
Several Opposition parties are upset that the digital Covid-19 vaccination certificates being issued to recipients carry a photograph of Modi at the bottom, and they are not OK with it.
A minister in Congress-ruled Punjab has criticised the move as “smacking of an obsessive self-projection”, while an MP of the ruling Trinamool Congress in poll-bound West Bengal said it was “condemnable”.
In Maharashtra, two constituents of the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition offered divergent opinions. An MP from the Shiv Sena, a former BJP ally, defended the move, saying the certificates carry Modi’s photos in his capacity as Prime Minister, but a state minister from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) claimed it is “absolutely wrong to have political personalities on a vaccination certificate”.
The digital vaccination certificate is available to recipients through the Co-Win app, a portal set up to aid India’s Covid immunisation drive. Modi’s photograph is accompanied by a quote from him in English which says, “Together, India will defeat COVID-19”, and a line in Hindi which says, “Dawai bhi, aur kadai bhi”, which translates to “vaccination, as well as caution”.
The entire vaccination programme is currently being overseen by the central government, with states and Union Territories not allowed to procure vaccines independently.
The PM’s photo is usually used in publicity material for central government schemes, but its inclusion in documents given out to beneficiaries of government initiatives is a relatively new development.
This is not the first time the Modi government has done this. During the rollout of Ayushman Bharat in 2018, his photo was printed on the intimation letters sent to beneficiaries of the scheme’s tertiary care arm, Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (PM-JAY).
This, despite state governments contributing 40 per cent of the scheme’s funds.
ThePrint reached the Union Ministry of Health, which is coordinating the vaccine effort, for a comment by email, but there was no response until the time of publishing this report. Senior officials in the ministry refused to respond to ThePrint’s queries about the need to use the PM’s photo on the certificate.
ThePrint also reached DG, PIB, Jaideep Bhatnagar and the PMO through emails but there was no response until the time of publishing this report.
The BJP’s national spokesperson R.P. Singh told ThePrint, “He is the PM of the country, so it is in that capacity his photo is there. The way he handled the coronavirus pandemic, the way India became a leading example for the rest of the world — whether it is in distribution of vaccine, PPE kits or other medicines — we should be proud of the work he has done.”
India’s Covid vaccination drive began on 16 January and over 1.3 crore healthcare and frontline workers have received the shot since. The second phase of the drive, which will widen the recipient pool to senior citizens and those aged over 45 years with comorbidities, began Monday.
Trinamool Congress leader Dr Santanu Sen, a Rajya Sabha MP and former national president of the Indian Medical Association (IMA), described the use of Modi’s photo on vaccination certificates and PM-JAY letters as “blatant attempts to break the federal structure”.
“This is unthinkable for us, to see the PM’s photo on the vaccination certificates. The Modi government did something similar in case of the Ayushman Bharat scheme. The state bears 40 per cent share of the scheme. But the health card that reached people bore his photo,” he said. “This is condemnable.”
He also criticised the decision to name the Motera cricket stadium in Gujarat — billed as the world’s biggest — after PM Modi, who hails from the state and led it as CM for over a decade.
“Perhaps, this is the first time in Indian history that a stadium was named after a PM who is still alive. People are seeing everything,” he added.
A senior official in the West Bengal government said the state government had noticed the photo right at the start “but could not change the format as it has been done centrally”.
When Banerjee led West Bengal out of PM-JAY in January 2019, she had cited Modi’s photo in the letters to beneficiaries as one of the reasons.
According to Punjab Health Minister Balbir Singh Sidhu, “having the picture of a politician on a vaccination certificate is not just inappropriate but also smacks of an obsessive self-projection that only Narendra Modi is capable of”.
“He wants his picture in every household and is using his government’s programme for it. The certificate of vaccine does not need to have any picture at all. But if a larger social message was to be sent through these certificates, there could have been a picture of philanthropist Mother Teresa on it, or the historical Bhai Kanhaiya, who gave water even to enemy soldiers. Or that of Bhagat Puran Singh ji of Amritsar pingalwara,” he added.
MVA constituents Shiv Sena and NCP are split on the matter.
The Shiv Sena said there is no reason for any objection, as Modi’s photo is being used on the certificate in his position as PM, which is a constitutional post, and not in his capacity as a BJP leader.
“We believe that Prime Minister is a constitutional post and commands respect. The whole vaccination drive is being undertaken under the Prime Minister’s leadership,” said Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut, chief spokesperson of the Shiv Sena.
“So, it is fine if the certificate carries the PM’s photo. We don’t want to make this political. If it mentioned the BJP in any way, then it would have been a different thing.”
However, the NCP’s Nawab Malik, a minister in the Uddhav Thackeray-led cabinet, said, “It is absolutely wrong to have political personalities on a vaccination certificate. This kind of thing has never happened in the country before. They (the BJP) want Modi’s photo everywhere.
“At this rate, there might be a day when they replace Gandhiji with Modi.”
Even so, Malik said, neither the state government nor his party has “as such officially raised any objection”.
ThePrint reached Balasaheb Thorat and Vijay Waddetiwar, state ministers and members of third MVA constituent Congress, by phone for a comment, but the calls went unanswered.
Reached for a comment on the certificate, a senior state health department official in BJP-led Karnataka, said the format had been set by the central government.
“It is available online and we just need to fill in the details. There is a given format by the central ministry and that is what we are also following,” the official added, not wishing to be named.
However, Y.B. Srivatsa, spokesperson for the opposition Congress, called it a “gimmick”.
“Our PM Modi never misses an opportunity to put his photograph wherever he needs, for PR. He is the first PM to name a stadium after himself. Now, he puts his photo on Covid certificates, all this when India has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the world compared to the huge population we have,” he said.
“Instead of focussing on vaccinating Indians, he is using his photograph for his own image-building. Indians are sick and tired of this.”
Jammu and Kashmir
Senior government officials in the health department of the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, which is currently under central rule, said “there was nothing wrong about the certificates having Modi’s photo”.
A senior health official who didn’t wish to be named said PM Modi’s photo was “representative of the central government’s effort to defeat the pandemic”.
“There is no need to read more into what the photograph is in the certificate,” the official said. “Even the PM-JAY card has a picture of PM Modi on it. The picture on the Covid-19 vaccination certificate represents the efforts of the central government, led by the PM, to defeat the pandemic,” the official added.
“There is also a quote (on the certificate) by PM Modi. It instills confidence among people. That’s all.”
Some Valley-based political parties, however, didn’t buy the view.
National Conference (NC) spokesperson Sarah Hayat questioned the need to print the PM’s photo on the certificate.
“It shouldn’t be made into a political campaign. If at all pictures had to be printed, it should have been of those scientists and doctors who have been at the forefront of battling this crisis,” she said.
A senior Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) leader said on the condition of anonymity that regional parties “would have responded earlier had they not been tied up in bigger issues”.
“Everything has been taken away from us and we have been so tied up in dealing with the aftermath of the changes made to J&K illegally that we don’t get to react to issues such as these,” the leader said.
“But come to think of it, this isn’t a surprise. Recently, the Sardar Patel stadium was renamed after PM Modi, so why express shock when the certificates have a picture of him?” said the PDP leader.
Inputs from Madhuparna Das, Chitleen Sethi, Manasi Phadke, Rohini Swamy, Azaan Javaid