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A Tarnished Jewel? Bharat Ratnas and the Shadow of Electoral Expediency

The five Bharat Ratnas aim to fuse together the forces of Mandir, Mandal, and the Market.

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India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, has traditionally been a symbol of exceptional achievement and selfless service to the nation.

But the sudden conferment of five Bharat Ratnas over the past fortnight has dimmed its lustre as political circles across the country are abuzz with a theory that it has been done to bolster political support and electoral alliances for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

A couple of caveats may be put in place before proceeding further.

The analysis here is not to question the merits/demerits of the individual awardees. Instead, the aim is merely to point out why the choice of the awardees and the timing of the announcements raise doubts about the government's motives. 

For a government that found nobody worthy of Bharat Ratna since the Lok Sabha polls in 2019 to suddenly hand out five awards in two weeks is bizarre and breaks the rules associated with its conferment. Besides undermining the award’s stature in public eyes as a nonpartisan recognition of national heroes, many claim the awards aim to buttress the political narratives of the BJP for the 2024 battle.

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Mandal and Mandir: Karpoori Thakur and L K Advani

The spree began with an award for Karpoori Thakur, the former Bihar Chief Minister widely seen as a messiah of social justice politics. Despite honouring Thakur, there was complete silence over what is popularly called the Karpoori Thakur formula for ensuring a better deal for the backward sections of society. Cutting across caste, creed, and gender, the Thakur formula stood for 26 per cent reservation for socially and economically backward groups, 12 per cent for the EBCs or Extremely Backward Classes, 3 per cent for poor women, and 3 per cent for educated women.

Strikingly, the Bharat Ratna for Thakur soon led to a political somersault by his protégé, i.e., Bihar CM Nitish Kumar, who dumped the INDIA (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance) bloc and hitched up with the BJP. Most observers believe the decision to honour Thakur was aimed at weakening the electoral consolidation of the OBCs and MBCs (most backward classes) in Bihar, a state that sends 40 MPs to the Lok Sabha. While the Congress and Lalu Yadav’s RJD (Rashtriya Janata Dal) lick their wounds, the award seems to have blunted the Opposition onslaught over the Caste Census issue.

If the award for Thakur weakens the INDIA bloc's Mandal-social justice plank in Bihar, the honour for L K Advani reinforces the Mandir euphoria for the BJP. Given to the latter's original ‘poster boy’ of Hindutva, days after the consecration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, it seems a recognition of Advani’s critical role in the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign of the 1990s. If many see it as a sop for his enforced absence from the Ram Mandir ceremony, others believe it aims to silence the criticism that PM Narendra Modi has marginalised Advani’s role in mobilising Hindu sentiments and realising the temple dream.

Since he was given the Padma Vibhushan in 2015, many wonder what  Advani has done in the last nine years to deserve the nation’s top award. But whatever the deciding factors in honouring him, it is worth remembering that his Rath Yatra left a trail of hate and bloodshed in the 1990s. Despite claims of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, the Advani award reflects that Hindutva triumphalism remains vital to BJP’s poll script.

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Mandal and Farmers: Charan Singh and Dr M S Swaminathan

Electoral calculations also appear to dominate the award for former PM Charan Singh, a champion of the farmer’s cause. It has emerged amid talks of an alliance in Uttar Pradesh (UP) between the BJP and the RLD (Rashtriya Lok Dal) led by Charan’s grandson Jayant Chaudhary. While Nitish Kumar took some days for his flip flop after the Karpoori award, Jayant confirmed an alliance with the BJP immediately after the announcement of Bharat Ratna for Charan Singh by asserting that “PM Modi understands the core character of the nation.”

Jayant’s switch to the BJP is a major setback to the Congress and the Samajwadi Party in UP which sends the highest number of 80 MPs to Lok Sabha. As RLD has a large support base among the Jats and the farmers in western UP, the alliance is the BJP’s bid to placate farmers. After years of attacking the BJP on farmer issues, the award helps Jayant to justify his swing to the saffron fold. The award euphoria has made Jayant forget even the humiliation that the Modi government had heaped on his father. In 2014, Jayant’s father and former union minister Ajit Singh was evicted from his government bungalow in Delhi which he wanted to be converted into a Charan Singh memorial!

Significantly, the award to agriculture scientist Dr M S Swaminathan also has a latent political message. Given his key role in ushering in the Green Revolution and ending the scourge of famines, the recognition is laudable. But the timing of the honour to the only non-political awardee among the current Bharat Ratnas, is seen as a sop to farmers’ lobby before elections.

Coming just a day after thousands of farmers marched towards Delhi to demand legal sanction for minimum support price (MSP) for their agricultural produce, the award seems an effort to dilute farmer anger over the 700-odd deaths in their protests against the Farm Laws that the BJP had enacted a few years ago. As the BJP has done little about Swaminathan’s suggestions on the MSP or enhancing farmer incomes, the recognition aims to pacify farmers who are threatening to launch a major agitation before the Lok Sabha polls.  

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Market: P V Narasimha Rao

The award to P V Narasimha Rao is, of course, a sharp stab at the Congress with a calculated attempt to expand the BJP’s footprint in South India. Like the Bharat Ratna in 2019 to former President Pranab Mukherjee, another Congress leader, Rao’s recognition aims to not just strengthen the BJP’s larger political narrative on Parivarwaad but also underline that the Grand Old Party has disregarded its own stalwarts outside the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty.

Given his strains with Sonia Gandhi, the Congress party had ignored Rao. Besides exposing the Congress's pettiness, the award to Rao enables the BJP to claim its non-partisan stand that is also designed as a goodwill gesture for South India where the BJP is patently weak.

As India’s most celebrated prime minister for market reforms, the award to Rao is well-deserved but it also underscores his dubious role in the Babri Masjid demolition under his watch. The honour for ‘Telugu Garu’ Rao comes just when the BJP is seeking to ally with former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu and even woo the current CM, Jaganmohan Reddy!

In a nutshell, the five Bharat Ratnas aim to fuse together the forces of Mandir, Mandal, and the Market which have dominated Indian polity for over three decades. They have been carefully chosen to maximise electoral rewards for the BJP. But at a time when the Modi dispensation is making tall claims of abki baar 400 paar, the desperation to stitch up alliances betrays a palpable nervousness ahead of the Lok Sabha battle.

Sadly, the flood of Bharat Ratnas on election eve risks devaluing public respect for the award. Instead of being viewed as a tribute to exemplary individuals, excessive politicisation may diminish the people's trust in the award. Unless it is dissociated from partisan agendas, the Bharat Ratna may well cease to be a beacon of inspiration for all Indians.

(The author is a veteran journalist and expert on Rajasthan politics. Besides serving as a Resident Editor at NDTV, he has been a Professor of Journalism at the University of Rajasthan in Jaipur. He tweets at @rajanmahan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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