Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement of distributing free Covid vaccines to states from 21 June is finally some good policy thinking, but more importantly, it is clever politics.
The Modi government’s vaccine policy was going horribly wrong — it was ill-conceived, patchy and most certainly not on track to vaccinate all eligible Indians in good time. Essentially, it had all the makings of a recipe that could potentially put PM Modi and his ‘good governance’ claims in the dock.
But, if there’s one thing Modi excels in, it is in convincing his voters that he is their eventual saviour, even if his critics are able to see through him and point out the glaring holes.
The latest vaccine example is smart politics precisely because of that. Narendra Modi has once again positioned himself as the messiah who swooped in to save the people of this country, when various state governments seemingly failed. You just need to read the lines, not even between them, to know how this is explicitly the messaging through his new vaccine policy and how his address to the nation was designed entirely around this.
Modi — The vaccinator
Dripping through Modi’s Monday 5pm address to the nation was a projection of benevolence and generosity, with his announcements of free vaccines for all above the age of 18 years.
If you thought Modi wasn’t listening to the criticism coming his way all this while, you were wrong. He was listening, and intently at that. What he did through his Monday address was to raise each of these criticisms, almost in a manner that poked fun at them, and amplify his justifications. It’s a different matter that he asks the questions and answers them too. Why give anybody a chance to cross-question through dialogue when you can conveniently pick your questions and then answer them too, all through a monologue?
But the biggest critique he sought to dismiss was how he had left states to fend for themselves amid India’s vaccine crisis. He claimed the earlier criticism was that despite health being a state subject, his government at the Centre was controlling everything. But after he decentralised the vaccination processes to an extent on 1 May, over half a dozen states, including Delhi, Kerala, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Odisha, and Andhra Pradesh, started demanding a return to the earlier centralised structure.
“What kind of problems are faced in such a big task, they started getting to know,” he said. What the PM didn’t point out was that the states were forced to turn to the Centre because foreign vaccine companies had refused to deal with the state governments.
And now, to ensure all eligible Indians were vaccinated, Modi was stepping in to provide the jabs. The messaging was loud and clear. The PM sought to project various state governments as being prone to flip-flops, incompetent and unable to manage on their own; that if the vaccine policy had been a failure so far, it was not because of the Modi government but because the states wanted to be in command. In one stroke, Modi slickly absolved himself of any missteps on the vaccine front, and told his constituency that he is now taking charge and will ensure free vaccines reach all.
“For all Indians, it is the Government of India that will provide free vaccines,” he declared, and with this, his messaging was complete.
Modi – The great convincer
Narendra Modi may or may not know his policy, but he sure knows his politics. Convincing his voter through cleverly timed and craftily designed messaging so that they clear him of all the blame has always been his forte.
So, while his rivals may call him a ‘chor‘ (thief), he will convince people that he is the ultimate ‘chowkidar’ (guard). Demonetisation may have been a policy blunder, but Modi can convince people it paid off, in whatever amorphous manner (the election results post demonetisation are proof). The country may be reeling under an unknown pandemic, but the PM convinces people to bang thalis and light diyas to cheer themselves up. It is this quality that puts Modi far ahead of his rivals electorally.
Modi is always the saviour. So, when the Uri attack happened, Modi struck back with the surgical strikes. And when the Pulwama terror attack happened, Modi struck back with Balakot air strikes and brought Pakistan down “to its knees.”
And now, the PM is projecting himself as the perfect answer to the stumbling Covid vaccination drive. Never mind that it is the Modi government that is largely responsible for this tottering programme. The opposition had the perfect tool to corner the PM with — his dismal handling of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. State governments were up in arms against the Centre’s approach. But with the ‘they couldn’t do it, I will’ undertone of his address, Modi has done what he knows best — upped the political game.
Monday’s address was yet another ‘Mann ki Baat’ by the PM, but it is this very baat that he manages to convince his voters with.
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(Edited by Prashant Dixit)