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Why PM Modi Announced Vaccination for Kids in an Abrupt Address to the Nation

This could well have been made by a senior health ministry official.

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Why did Prime Minister Narendra Modi choose the format of an 'Address to the Nation' to make public the government’s decision on pan-India vaccination for children in the 15-18 years age group although this could well have been made by a senior health ministry official?

After all, in January this year when the Centre announced the launch of the immunisation drive, it was the health secretary Rajesh Bhushan who did the honours.

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To Project Himself as the 'Harbinger of Good Tidings'?

But, by deciding to be the one to announce the decision, under discussion for several weeks, to bring older children under the protective shield of the vaccine, besides providing for a ‘precautionary’ dose for healthcare and frontline workers and those with co-morbidities above the age of 60, Modi has consciously projected himself as the harbinger of good tidings, or the supreme ‘provider’.

This mirrors a trend established in the early weeks of the pandemic itself; the corona messaging of this regime can be summed up in four words – it’s chiefly about Modi.

The announcement regarding Modi’s twelfth Address to the Nation since the onset of the pandemic was made shortly after 9.30 pm on Christmas Day, celebrated by the government as Good Governance Day to mark Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s birthday.

Sudden announcements of an Address to the Nation, especially at night, leave people worried because past dramatic announcements of demonetisation and lockdown remain etched in public memory. Apprehensions that these addresses evoke, add to Modi’s aura. This is used as a tool to buttress his image of a tough leader who brooks no nonsense.

It was important to broadcast the vaccines-for-children decision after it was taken, reportedly earlier during the day, without delay because the year’s last Mann Ki Baat was scheduled for the next day. It is known that this government does not normally schedule more than one Modi ‘event’ because news coverage of one or the other may get underplayed.

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Modi & BJP Govt's 'Bifocal Vision'

The prime minister made it a point to kick off his address by stating that this being the last week of the year it was a time for festivities. It remained unstated, although the message was not lost, that despite ongoing celebrations, the government and he personally, were hands-on engaged in meeting the challenge from rising number of COVID-19 cases, not the least due to new variant, Omicron.

Early in the pandemic period we had noted that Modi and the government had a bifocal vision, constantly shuffling its focus between the crisis on hand and the political narrative that lay ahead.

On the pandemic front, there certainly are reasons to worry now, given the rising graph of the number of cases. The response of several nations, especially in Europe, indicates that the GoI can be complacent only at great cost.

Clearly, Modi was prepping people for a challenging period in coming weeks and making a case for a sudden twist in the political calendar.

Already a judge of the Allahabad High Court requested the Election Commission of India to postpone the upcoming Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections by a month or two. Heeding this would not be constitutionally easy and the government will require the Opposition to be on board if such a decision is indeed taken.

After having erred earlier this year by prematurely claiming ‘victory’, Modi, the government and the BJP do not wish to make the same mistake twice.

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Why PM Modi Did Not 'Personally' Announce the Nation's Vaccine Drive?

Which is why, Modi chose to prepare citizens for what may possibly lie ahead. He asked people, “not to panic, but be careful and vigilant. We should not forget to wear masks and sanitise our hands regularly...experience in the fight against the global pandemic so far shows that following all the guidelines on an individual level is a great weapon to combat corona. And the second weapon is vaccination”.

That is where Modi comes in, personally announcing that he was providing the second ammunition, this time to children, after having, again ‘personally’, providing it free of cost to citizens choosing not to opt for paid vaccines.

It would be opportune to ponder over why Modi did not personally announce the launch of the immunisation programme in January and stepped in only subsequently. We must recall initial widespread scepticism, even among health care and frontline workers, on the two vaccines when launched.

In the weeks after the launch of the vaccination drive in mid January, 'vaccine hesitancy' was pervasive. This was due to, in no small measure, from the government losing the opportunity the pandemic presented to inculcate scientific temper society and instead promote all forms of obscurantist behaviour.

In January, Modi did not wish to be seen as personally driving the vaccine because people were not yet ready for it. But when faced with the brutal second wave, people gradually began embracing vaccines in the hope of the shots providing protection in some measure.

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Significantly, in the early period of the COVID vaccination programme, when hesitancy was high among people, the state governments were given greater powers.

But after the second wave, Modi not only took ownership of the drive but also laid complete blame on the doors of the states for the vaccine mess in the country. This was despite the fact that the Centre's faulty policy had riled the Supreme Court.

With people gradually becoming less fearful and more open to being vaccinated and after initial teething troubles were resolved, besides an improvement in vaccine availability, Modi showcased the drive as his regime’s ‘achievement’.

On 22 October, he addressed the nation to celebrate 100 crore vaccine doses. He remarked that reaching this watershed mark demonstrated that the country (read government) had simultaneously performed its duty and on the other hand “got great success”. He also reiterated his argument that the success of the vaccination programme was proof of India’s emerging self-reliance while running down past achievements in immunisation.

The absence of Modi, or the tactical distance he maintained during the initial period of the vaccination drive had been seen in the initial period too when after taking the lead role in calling for Janata Curfew and imposing the dramatic nationwide lockdown in March, he took a backseat.

But in October 2020 after the situation began easing, Modi addressed the nation and stated that the citizens had “come a long way in the fight against corona, since the Janata curfew".

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The prime minister in his address also mentioned that the “recovery rate in the country has improved a lot and the fatality rate is low”.

The decision to personally announce vaccines for children in the 15-18 age band, alongside the ‘protective’ shot for health workers and senior citizen with co-morbidities, is yet another pointer to the de-institutionalisation that takes place whenever convenient or beneficial when populist leaders are at the helm of regimes.

(The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. His other books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)

(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  PM Narendra Modi   children   vaccination 

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