Should Bharat Ratna Be Reserved for the ‘Real Jewel’ in the Crown?

Should the standards for selecting a Bharat Ratna be spelt out much more clearly?

5 min read
Should the standards for selecting a Bharat Ratna, as someone who is really a “jewel of India”, as opposed to someone who may have excelled in her field, or served a community, or broken new ground and innovated?

Giving Bharat Ratna 2019 to three figures – Pranab Mukherjee, Bhupen Hazarika and Nanaji Deshmukh – in an election year was bound to raise a controversy – which it has done.

For the record, the Congress has been politically correct in welcoming a Bharat Ratna for Pranab Mukherjee and Rahul Gandhi said that his party took pride in the fact that one of its own had been honoured with the country’s highest civilian award.

Pranab Mukherjee was an eminent and experienced leader of the Congress, having held every top portfolio in Union Government (except Home). He headed scores of GOMs during the ten years of the UPA rule, troubleshooted for the party, was able to steer it at difficult moments, endowed as he was with a phenomenal “historic” memory and having the Constitution of the country and the Congress party on his fingertips.


The Politics Behind Mukherjee’s Award

It goes without saying that honouring him with a Bharat Ratna at this time sends a signal to West Bengal, where the BJP is making an all out effort to mop up seats, and where party chief Amit Shah’s fire power has been evident.

By awarding Mukherjee, the BJP dispensation may also be trying to underscore the message of “liberality” that we honour those also on the “other side”, unlike “you”.

It is hardly a secret that Pranab Mukherjee was the Prime Minister India never had. Sonia Gandhi preferred Dr Manmohan Singh to Mukherjee in 2004, and what was apparently held against him was that he had showed an inclination to take over after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991.

In Awarding Pranab, a Message to the Congress?

He compelled the Congress High Command to accept him as the President of India in 2012, because of a confluence of events he managed to steer in place with a deft hand. In 2007 too, he was being backed by the Left parties for Rashtrapati Bhavan but the Congress leadership turned down the proposal. And Pratibha Patil emerged as the last-minute choice of the UPA then in power.

Though a quintessential Congressman, Mukherjee turned out to be a copybook president, moving in step with the Narendra Modi government, not striking a discordant note, and last year he accepted to speak at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur much to the discomfiture of the Congress brass.

Bharat Ratna to Pranab Mukherjee was bound to trigger off a debate about the Gandhi family’s “attitude” towards its own leaders over the years, and thereby emphasise the primacy only of the Dynasty in the Congress – a point Modi does not tire of making. Let’s make no mistake, the underlying – thought unstated – theme of Battle 2019 is going to be Modi versus the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

North East a Political Cushion for BJP in 2019?

The significance of selecting Bhupen Hazarika at this juncture lies in the importance of the North East to the BJP. Hazarika is one of the iconic figures of the NE of India, respected widely and loved for his lyrics, poems, and music. The “Seven plus One” sisters of the area (Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and the plus being Sikkim) account for 25 Lok Sabha seats, and the BJP was hoping to mop up 17-18 Lok Sabha seats from the region three months down the line.

When you talk about how the BJP is going to compensate for the loss of seats that is going to take place in the Hindi heartland, which is bound to happen given the fact that the party had peaked in 2014, it is the North Eastern states that look promising.

In the last five years, the BJP juggernaut has managed to uproot the Congress from this region – it adds upto a mid-sized state of India – whereas the Congress used to take its presence for granted in alliance with regional parties.

Will Award Take Citizenship Woes Away?

The North East, however, is also an area which may prove to be a fertile hunting ground for the Congress in Poll 2019. The Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019 – to provide citizenship to Hindu refugees coming from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan – may have seemed like a tempting tool to rehabilitate Hindu refugees, making a distinction with the Muslims, and thereby help create a polarisation.

But it has boomeranged and created huge resentment not just in Assam but also in other states of the NE. In protest, some militant organisations in the region even called for a boycott of the Republic Day celebrations this year. Such was the reaction to the Bill, that the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) pulled out of the BJP government in Assam in protest.

Bharat Ratna to Bhupen Hazarika may not douse these sentiments, but those who made the decision may have calculated that it might go to mollify some people, that little bit.


The Need to Honour its Own

As for Nanaji Deshmukh, the government had to honour one of its own or there would have been an outcry from its core constituency. And Nanaji, from the RSS family, who played a significant role in the JP movement in the mid-seventies, and helped unite the Opposition forces to defeat the Congress of Indira Gandhi in 1977, and engaged in rural construction work during the latter part of his life.

The late Atal Bihari Vajpayee had once said, in private, that if “they” did not look after their own people when they came to power, no one would stay with them. He was responding to criticism that the BJP was appointing to positions people supportive of it.

Vajpayee was underlining the principle of practical politics, and this has influenced choices made by every government. It also applies to the country’s Padma awards, and people are known to lobby for them.

Every January when the country’s highest civilian awards are announced, there is a debate on the criteria for selecting the Padma awardees? And on who should decide this?

Should it be an agency that goes beyond the government of the day? And should the standards for selecting a Bharat Ratna be spelt out much more clearly, as someone who is really a “jewel of India”, as opposed to someone who may have excelled in her field, or served a community, or broken new ground and innovated? The “jewel” is after all different from an “ornament” ( “vibhushan” and “bhushan”).

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

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