Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel asked the Centre on Thursday if it will provide Covid-19 vaccines free of cost, demanding clarity on the immunisation funding strategy at a time when the race for vaccines has entered the last lap and focus is shifting to regulatory approval and distribution logistics.
Speaking at the 18th Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, Baghel also criticised Congress leaders such as Kapil Sibal and Ghulam Nabi Azad for publicly attacking the party, and suggested that grievances should be laid out in the party’s internal forum.
Baghel, a five-time Congress legislator who swept to power in December 2018 with a two-thirds majority, referred to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) manifesto promise in Bihar of free vaccines and asked if the poll pledge hinted that the onus of funding immunisation would be on the states.
“The Centre should clarify if it will make the vaccine free. How much will the states pay? How much will the Centre pay? How much subsidy will the Centre give?” he asked.
He pointed out that his state was doing its bit to keep the economy running and following central guidelines on vaccine and distribution strategy, but added that central ministers should be asked if the Union government planned to subsidise the vaccine.
“Does the Bihar election promise mean that the Centre won’t spend money and only issue guidelines? We will do our best but the Centre should clarify if it will provide states with the vaccine for free. If we have to spend money, then why should we follow central guidelines and not make our own guidelines?”
Baghel’s comments came at a time when four vaccine candidates from Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford-AstraZeneca and the Russian government have published encouraging late-stage clinical trial results.
The Oxford-AstraZeneca candidate, called AZD1222, which has an efficacy of up to 90% according to data released this week by the company, and Russia’s Sputnik V with an efficacy of 95%, are considered India’s best hopes. The Oxford vaccine is being manufactured by the Pune-based Serum Institute of India (SII).
Baghel was one of eight chief ministers who met Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday to discuss plans to arrest the spread of the virus and inoculation strategies. After the meet, Modi said the Centre was working with states and assured them that a detailed plan for vaccine distribution will be shared soon.
But Baghel, 59, appeared dissatisfied with the Covid response, and blamed the Centre, and major metropolitan cities, for failing to quarantine international travellers to break the chain of infection that has claimed around 2,800 lives his state.
“When it (Covid-19 pandemic) goes out of control, you put the responsibility of all failures on the states. The PM gave clear hints at uncertainty around the rate, dosage and timing of the vaccine’s availability. It will be good if the Centre bore this one cost,” said Baghel.
In his session, Baghel – who has previously called for Rahul Gandhi to take over the Congress – also hit out at swirling controversy over the party’s internal functioning, especially after its dismal showing in the Bihar polls, where it won just 19 of the 70 seats it fought.
In media interviews and articles, leaders such as Sibal and Azad have decried the lack of accountability and introspection within the party, drawing criticism from other sections of the Congress. The two were also part of 23 leaders who wrote to party chief Sonia Gandhi in August, asking for internal reforms.
Baghel said Rahul Gandhi was best suited to lead the Congress because he had acceptability from the party cadre, and was unafraid to confront the government on a range of issues.
“Who has stopped Kapil Sibal or Ghulam Nabi Azad from speaking [against the Union government]? If there are national issues or attacking the government, they never speak. They only attack the party in public,” Baghel said.
“These leaders would tell us earlier that we should present our stand in the party forum. The same should apply to them,” said Baghel.
The Chhattisgarh chief minister also detailed his government’s strategy to keep the state’s economy running, stopping the outflow of migrant labour and keep a lid on hunger and poverty during the pandemic, and elaborated on how the disease had transformed politics.
“Earlier, politics couldn’t be done without road shows, rallies or meeting people. Now it’s confined to one room. I had never imagined it.”