Narendra Modi: 'Why is the Indian PM's photo on my Covid vaccine certificate?'

By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Delhi

Published
Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Peter M has accused India's prime minister of using the vaccine programme as "a propaganda tool"

A court in the southern Indian state of Kerala is due to hear a petition next week from an unhappy citizen who does not want Prime Minister Narendra Modi's photograph on his Covid-19 vaccine certificate.

The man, known as Peter M, wants a new certificate without Mr Modi's picture because, he says, "it violates my fundamental rights". Peter M is a 62-year-old right to information activist and a member of India's main opposition Congress party.

"By putting his picture on my certificate, he's intruding into the private space of citizens. It's unconstitutional and I'm requesting the honourable prime minister to stop this wrong, shameful act immediately," Mr Peter told the BBC on the phone from his home in Kottayam district.

"It's inappropriate in a democracy and of absolutely no use to the nation or any individual," he added.

Besides the personal details of the individual, vaccine certificates issued by the Indian health ministry carry Mr Modi's photograph along with two messages in English and local languages.

In August, junior health minister Bharati Pravin Pawar told parliament that the photo and the quotes were included "in larger public interest" - to encourage people to follow Covid-appropriate behaviour even after inoculation.

But Peter M argues that those who have already taken the vaccine are "already convinced of its utility" and the messages in the certificate are "no more than preaching to the converted".

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Vaccine certificates in India include Mr Modi's photo at the bottom

"Mr Modi is not our first PM and this is not India's first vaccination programme. But the campaign against Covid-19 and the vaccine programme is being projected as a one-man show, a propaganda tool for the prime minister."

Peter M is especially riled since he had to pay for his own jab at a private hospital because "there was a long queue for appointments at government hospitals" giving out free vaccines.

"I paid 750 rupees [$10; £7] for each jab so why should Mr Modi's photo be on my certificate?" he asks.

The Kerala High Court has given the federal and state governments two weeks to respond. I reached out to two spokespersons from Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but they declined to comment on Peter M's petition.

The prime minister's photograph on the vaccine certificate has also been criticised by his political rivals. A few opposition ruled states have even replaced his photo with pictures of their own chief ministers.

Senior Congress party leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra accused Mr Modi of using vaccines for "personal publicity". And Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal state, said he should put his picture on death certificates too.

"Suppose I am not your supporter... I do not like you but I must carry this. Why? Where is the freedom of people?" she asked at a press conference.

"You made your photo compulsory on Covid certificates. Now put it on death certificates too," she added.

The photograph also caused confusion for Indians travelling abroad - Vice news recently reported that immigration officers, who were not familiar with Mr Modi's face, had accused some travellers of fraud.

Peter M is worried that if left unchecked, Mr Modi will "next start putting his picture in the school and college-leaving certificates of our children".

His concern is rooted in the fact that Mr Modi's photo sometimes pops up in places where it is not meant to be. Recently, a government advertisement with the prime minister's image was dropped from official court emails after objections from the Supreme Court.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
India has administered nearly one billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines

The prime minister's love for being photographed and taking selfies is well known. He has a huge following on social media and his rallies are always attended by tens of thousands of people across the country.

His supporters say there is nothing wrong in displaying the prime minister's photo on vaccine certificates as he is one of the most recognisable faces in the country.

Mr Modi's bearded face looks down from billboards and street hoardings, he smiles from full-page newspaper advertisements and websites of most government ministries carry advertisements with his photo.

Critics say India has never been short of leaders who indulge in self-glorification. In the past, BJP has criticised the Congress party, led by the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, for naming hundreds of airports, universities, awards and welfare schemes after their family members.

Mayawati, Dalit icon and former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state, is famous for building statues of herself and has been accused of encouraging a personality cult.

Jayaram Jayalalitha, the late chief minister of Tamil Nadu, had put her face on cheap food canteens, pharmacies and salt packets.

"But Mr Modi takes this self-obsession to another level," says Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a journalist and Mr Modi's biographer.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Banners thanking Mr Modi for Covid vaccines have appeared in many Indian cities

"He's a member of the RSS [Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh], which preaches that the organisation is bigger than the individual, but under him, the individual has become more important than the organisation.

"If you hear him speak, he doesn't say our government, it's always my government or Modi's government. In his public utterances, there's a lot of 'I, me, myself'. In February, he even renamed a stadium after himself."

Mr Mukhopadhyay says Mr Modi has used the pandemic "as a great opportunity to promote his cult".

"Since [the] vaccine is the only protection available against Covid-19, by putting his photo on the certificate, he wants to be seen as the people's saviour," Mr Mukhopadhyay said.

"He wants to be seen as the human face of divinity so that he can earn people's trust and faith which will then translate into votes for him."

Image guru Dilip Cherian says the prime minister's photo on the vaccine certificate is "a blurring of lines between what's appropriate from the party point of view with what is normative from the government point of view".

"The certificates are being weaponised to win votes," he says.

"The emphasis seems to be on electoral gains - to have as many vehicles as possible, be it the vaccine certificate or documents for government schemes, to carry the same message."

"Face familiarity" is a major plus, Mr Cherian says, because today the identity of the party has merged with the individual.

"Putting his picture there is part of a precision strike aimed at individual voters for a high brand recall."

Peter M says that is where the problem lies with having Mr Modi's face on his vaccine certificate.

"He's a politician who represents a party, he fights elections and this gives him an undue advantage over his rivals. And this must stop."

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