In a fiery, passionate and often quarrelsome interview, where she is toughly questioned about positions taken by her party leader, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, TMC Lok Sabha MP Mahua Moitra has said Prime Minister Narendra Modi “lied” in his address to the nation on June 7. She was referring to Modi’s claim that under pressure from state governments he was pushed into changing the vaccination policy which led directly to the chaos and confusion we have seen over the last six weeks. Mahua Moitra said of the prime minister “like Dorian Gray his image is growing uglier in the mirror and like Pinocchio his nose is getting longer”.
In a 30-minute interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire, Moitra was questioned about Mamata Banerjee’s letter to the prime minister on February 24, where the Bengal chief minister asked for “appropriate authority so that state government is able to purchase the vaccines” itself. Moitra was asked where did Mamata Banerjee get the confidence to believe she could purchase vaccines when it was well-known that the entire stock produced by Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca had been pre-sold to countries like the UK, US, Japan, Canada and the European Union. In response, she said there was a crisis because the second wave was about to start, people in Bengal did not have vaccines and wanted them, the Modi government refused to take steps to try and procure vaccines from abroad and, therefore, chief ministers like Banerjee felt they must step-in and try and do whatever they can. It was a situation where even though the prospects of success were minimal the need to try – and try as hard as you can – to get vaccines was of prime importance.
In The Wire interview, Moitra was also questioned on what basis Banerjee believed manufacturers like Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca would agree to sell to state governments when they had already made it clear they will only sell to Central or federal governments. She was also questioned about Banerjee’s insistence that vaccination should be opened up to every adult over the age of 18 at a time when vaccines were in clear short supply and not enough for those over 60, leave aside those over 45. They certainly weren’t enough for the 18-44 age group. The question to Moitra was that by putting pressure for vaccinations to be extended to the 18-44 age group, a cohort of some 600 million people, the Bengal chief minister was making an already bad situation incomparably worse.
In the interview, the TMC MP said that rapid mass vaccination was the biggest challenge and greatest requirement facing the country today and the prime minister has failed to deliver. She said he had let down the country but he has also let down the people of the African continent, who were depending on the Indian-made Covishield, as well as international sharing programmes like COVAX. She also said the prime minister has damaged India’s reputation as the pharmacy of the world.
In the interview, Moitra listed in detail a catalogue of the Modi government’s failures in handling vaccines. The government failed to ramp up production capacity even though it knew India cannot make enough vaccines in quick time for its requirement, it failed to advance order and encourage vaccine producers by extending financial support and then it only placed small confirmed orders, she said.
She said scooter-wallahs and tonga-wallahs, who once admired Modi, now blame him for the mess he’s created.
Moitra said her party leader, Mamata Banerjee, would put further pressure on the government to ensure that the requirement for people under 45 to register on the Co-WIN portal before they are vaccinated is removed. She said this amounts to discrimination in treatment between people under 45 and those over 45, who do not have to register, and, therefore, violates Articles 14 of the constitution which guarantees every Indian citizen the right not to be discriminated against.
The above is a paraphrased precis of Mahua Moitra’s interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire. Although not inaccurate, it’s recounted from memory. There is, of course, a lot more in the interview than has been covered by this brief precis. Please see the full interview not just for a better understanding of Mahua Moitra’s viewpoint but also to appreciate the strength of her conviction, the depth of her passion and the fire in her delivery.
The most remarkable thing about this interview is the passion and, at times, fury with which Mahua Moitra speaks. If you admired her speeches in parliament, which have gone viral, this is an even more powerful 30-minute command performance. This time, because she is challenged, she rises to an even higher level of rhetoric. Rarely, if ever, has Mahua Moitra been seen as she emerges from this interview.