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APAC

BJP, courting votes in Bihar state, promises free COVID-19 vaccines

KOLKATA/MUMBAI (Reuters) - Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party on Thursday promised free doses of any future COVID-19 vaccine for the residents of eastern Bihar state if it wins local elections there, drawing accusations of playing politics with the pandemic.

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Modi said this week his government was working to ensure the supply of vaccines to all citizens once they were available, but has not made any announcement on their cost.

Releasing the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) manifesto for elections in Bihar, federal Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said: “Everyone in Bihar will get a vaccine for free, that’s our first manifesto promise.”

The BJP currently rules Bihar with an ally but is facing a united opposition. Elections there start next week over phases, and results are expected on Nov. 10.

Bihar, which is India’s third most populous state and also one of its poorest, has so far reported more than 200,000 coronavirus cases.

“To make this an election-related issue over a humanitarian crisis is highly immoral and unethical,” Priyanka Chaturvedi, a lawmaker and spokeswoman for the Shiv Sena party, a former ally of the BJP, said on Twitter.

After the BJP’s announcement, Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, which holds elections next year, said his government too would distribute any vaccine for free. The state is ruled by Palaniswami’s regional All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party, a BJP ally.

The vaccine promises come as India confronts a possible surge in COVID-19 cases after ongoing festivals that end mid-November. The country has reported a total of 7.71 million cases, behind only the United States.

West Bengal state on Wednesday reported its biggest daily tally of new infections, at 4,069, as thousands of people thronged the streets during the multi-day Durga Puja festival.

The country as a whole, however, has seen a sharp drop in cases since a September peak.

Additional Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal in New Delhi, Sumit Khanna in Ahmedabad and Sudarshan Varadhan in Chennai; Editing by Mayank Bhardwaj and Pravin Char

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