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  Opinion   Columnists  25 Feb 2024  Bhopinder Singh | The politicisation of Bharat Ratna awards is getting more pronounced

Bhopinder Singh | The politicisation of Bharat Ratna awards is getting more pronounced

The writer is former lieutenant-governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Puducherry
Published : Feb 26, 2024, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Feb 26, 2024, 12:05 am IST

India's highest civilian award, Bharat Ratna, sees increasing political influence, raising questions of fairness and partisanship

Senior BJP leader LK Advani was conferred the Bharat Ratna, the country's highest civilian award. (PTI Photo/Manvender_Vashist Lav)
 Senior BJP leader LK Advani was conferred the Bharat Ratna, the country's highest civilian award. (PTI Photo/Manvender_Vashist Lav)

Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation and a global apostle of peace, never got the Nobel Peace Prize. Nominated repeatedly, the inspiration for the likes of Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Barack Obama, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and countless others, was denied this honour. Later, the Norwegian Nobel Committee had itself acknowledged: “The greatest omission in our 106-year history is undoubtedly that Mahatma Gandhi never received the Nobel Peace Prize. Gandhi could do without the Nobel Peace Prize, [but] whether the Nobel Committee can do without Gandhi is the question”.

From technicalities and precedence (non-Westerner, non-white, non-Christian, etc) to even sheer politics (potentially offending sensibilities of the British or even seen to be on one side of the the contentious India-Pakistan divide), the elevated soul was denied the prize, and eventually, it was only Nobel’s loss.

In the Indian context, the highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna (Jewel of India), conferred for “exceptional service/performance of the highest order” has had its own share of notable omissions. Though the Bharat Ratna has often been given posthumously, the Supreme Court contextualised the denial to the Mahatma by suggesting that he was “higher than the Bharat Ratna” -- while others like the family of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose declined the honour, as they refused to accept his death. But it is a fact that political, electoral or partisan considerations for conferment has often been the subliminal consideration ever since Independence with all governments, but possibly increasingly so now, and a little more brazenly.

The last four governments at the Centre -- led by Inder Kumar Gujral, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi -- validate this disconcerting trend. Inder Gujral’s government conferred this honour on M.S. Subbulakshmi and C. Subramaniam (both non-partisan awards). The Vajpayee era conferred it on “Lok Nayak” Jayaprakash Narayan, Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen, Assamese leader G. Bordoloi, sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, singer Lata Mangeshkar and shehnai virtuoso Bismillah Khan (only two of the six were politicians). Dr Manmohan Singh’s government conferred the award on vocalist Bhimsen Joshi, scientist C.N.R. Rao and cricketer Sachin Tendulkar (all three non-partisan). However, the current government has given the same to former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, educationist Madan Mohan Malviya, former President Pranab Mukherjee, singer Bhupen Hazarika, ideologue Nanaji Deshmukh, former Bihar chief minister Karpoori Thakur, veteran BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani, agronomist and Green Revolution pioneer M.S. Swaminathan, and former PMs P.V. Narasimha Rao and Chaudhary Charan Singh (an unprecedented seven out of ten are politicians!).

While each of the awardees has had a substantial impact on the national narrative, the sharp political angularities now are unmistakeable. The Nitish Kumar flip-flop drama and the underlying concern over a caste census in Bihar accompanied the Karpoori Thakur nomination (even though the erstwhile Jan Sangh, with a predominantly upper caste base, had opposed Karpoori Thakur’s reservation drive then). In the case of L.K. Advani (with his own complicated history with Narendra Modi after being relegated to the Margdarshak Mandal geriatric club), the murmurs of perpetuating the crucial Ram Mandir momentum abound. The most recent announcements of M.S. Swaminathan (truly deserving for his apolitical and transformational contribution) aside, the other two awardees -- P.V. Narasimha Rao and Chaudhary Charan Singh – are deeply political. Even though the politics and preferences of both Narasimha Rao and Charan Singh were antithetical to Hindutva anchorage -- rewarding the former perpetuates the narrative of dynastic politics of the Congress, which arguably disowned its own like Rao, while the recognition for Charan Singh bagged a major ally in the RLD just before the general election. The timing is ominous and a giveaway, and it would be naïve to assume otherwise.

Earlier too, various governments did not exactly cover themselves with glory with their own actions. It is a fact that Jawaharlal Nehru did not nominate himself (contrary to vile innuendoes), as it was President Rajendra Prasad who did so. Not only did President Prasad insist, “this is my decision, I am doing it”, but also accepted his unilateral and non-consultative approach. People forget that Rajendra Babu was not exactly on friendly terms with Nehru and would not have done so unless he truly recognised Nehru’s stature during the Cold War era. Similarly, President V.V. Giri is said to have conferred the Bharat Ratna on Indra Gandhi after India’s victory in the 1971 Bangladesh war, after taking “full responsibility for conferring the honour on Indira”. In the case of the 1971 war, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw had a far more compelling claim to the honour, and to assume that the all-powerful Indira Gandhi wouldn’t have known about President V.V. Giri’s move is hard to believe. Second, both Nehru and Indira could have gracefully declined, and that wouldn’t have lessened their legacy, but they didn’t. Lastly, the fact that both Nehru and Indira were instrumental in what could be construed as reciprocal conferment onto Presidents Rajendra Prasad and V.V. Giri does not make for great optics.

Now, there is also a question of double standards when compared to the much-hyped approach of “recognising the commoners” for the Padma awards -- which was a positive development, considering the awards did end up getting to awardees known to be close to the government of the day, earlier. It could now be credibly argued that the highest award, the Bharat Ratna, still follows the same age-old approach, and with perhaps even more politics and partisanship involved. From securing sudden electoral alliances to willy-nilly discrediting the Opposition, everything has been par for the course.

Tags: bharat ratna award, lk advani, pv narasimha rao