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BJP's Free COVID-19 Vaccine Promise Not a Violation of Model Code: EC

The saffron party’s promise had kicked off a debate. The RJD-led opposition alliance had accused the BJP of “politicising the pandemic and playing on the fears of the people”.

New Delhi: While at least two former Chief Election Commissioners believed that the electoral promise of free COVID-19 vaccine by the Bharatiya Janata Party in Bihar violated the model code of conduct (MCC), the Election Commission of India (ECI) has disagreed. This has predictably opened the field for the saffron party to advertise its controversial announcement.

In its response to a complaint by RTI activist Saket Gokhale, alleging that the promise was a violation of the Union government’s powers, and disturbed the level-playing field, the ECI gave a clean chit to BJP. Gokhale had said that the promise of free distribution of vaccines was an attempt to mislead voters as the cure for COVID-19 has not been decided yet. However, the ECI said that the BJP’s election manifesto was not violative of the MCC.

“The Commission’s reply to Gokhale, dated October 28, quotes three provisions from the MCC: that state election manifestos should not contain anything repugnant to the Constitution; should avoid making promises that vitiate the purity of the electoral process or exert undue influence on the voter; and should reflect the rationale behind promises. The reply also points out that manifestos are always issued for a specific election,” the Indian Express reported.

“In view of the above, no violation of any of the provisions of Model Code of Conduct has been observed in the instant matter,” the ECI told Gokhale.

Also read: BJP’s ‘Free COVID Vaccine for Votes’ Offer for Bihar Raises Concerns of Health Policy, Ethics

The saffron party’s promise had kicked off a debate when the Rashtriya Janata Dal-led opposition alliance had accused the BJP of “politicising the pandemic and playing on the fears of the people”. The BJP had said that once the ICMR approved the vaccine, residents of Bihar will be given free vaccination.

“Corona[virus] vaccine belongs to the country. It does not belong to the BJP. The political use of the vaccine shows that they have no option but to sell the fear of the disease and death. The people of Bihar have self-respect, they do not sell their children’s future for a few pennies,” the RJD said later.

However, BJP’s Bhupendra Yadav had defended the promise. “I do not understand why it is becoming a controversy. Health is a part of public policy, and all political parties make promises on public policies. Just like some parties promising farm loan waiver, we are promising to keep the people in Bihar safe,” Bhupender Yadav, BJP general secretary in-charge of Bihar, had told The Indian Express.

The ECI has been lenient towards political parties in the recent past. During the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls, it let the Congress walk free on a complaint that its promise of implementing NYAY scheme, which promised a sum of Rs 72,000 (Rs 6,000 per month) for 25 crore people below the poverty line.

However, since the vaccine is being supervised directly by the Narendra Modi-led Centre, opposition parties thought that BJP’s promise of free distribution of it in Bihar is a different case altogether. “While the Congress was in opposition, the BJP is a ruling party both at the Centre and the state. The promise of a free vaccine by it makes it look like a bribe,” an RJD leader, who didn’t want to be named told The Wire in Patna.