The award should celebrate rare talent and we cannot let it be used as a tool for settling political wrongs
When we do not find a Bharat Ratna for four years, admitting to a colossal vacuum of national genius and worth, and then suddenly find three jewels — two of whom are no more with us, and one of long-time provenance — then it means that we have been blindfolded and woken up to sudden enlightenment. Or as this year’s roll call of national honours shows, set our goals deliberately, namely the general elections. Nothing else can explain why the NDA government has strayed from just rewarding ideological affiliates to celebrating a rainbow coalition of non-partisan and big names from public life. Except that the neutral choices seemed far more politically motivated than they would otherwise. And the messaging was far from subtle. Little wonder then that Gita Mehta, sister of Odisha Chief Minister and BJD leader Naveen Patnaik, refused the Padma Shri bestowed on her, saying the intent behind it would be misconstrued in an election year and she would much rather have people believe that she got it for her worth. It is no secret that the BJP is trying to woo Patnaik, who is hell-bent on maintaining a political equidistance. It also explains why life-long Congressman and ex-President Pranab Mukherjee wondered aloud what he had done so great to merit the nation’s highest award. Of course, Mukherjee’s choice is in tandem with the BJP’s appropriation of Congress icons, from Mahatma Gandhi — who dominated the Republic Day flotilla — to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. The BJP clearly wanted to show that the Congress didn’t even bother to reward the dyed-in-the-wool partyman for his contribution to the sustenance of its governments only because he didn’t kowtow to its first family. It is no rocket science to understand how both he, though he may not talk about it, and many across the spectrum were surprised about him being passed over for prime ministership in 1984 and 2004, mainly because of opposition from the Gandhis. With Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi also Bharat Ratnas, the BJP seems to be attempting to soothe hurt pride of a dedicated public servant, who at one time was heading the maximum number of the now abolished GoMs (group of ministers), and equate him as an equivalent of the dynasty. But if the BJP believes that backing Pranabda would get it sympathy from Bengal, appealing to the gentry’s respect of him, it is highly mistaken. Just as it is mistaken that Mukherjee himself, while maintaining cordial relations with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, will feel grateful enough to critique the Congress. Even while gracing the RSS event, he had ended up emphasising plurality and inclusiveness and not disappointed the Congress one bit. Naming Assamese author, singer composer Bhupen Hazarika for Bharat Ratna — and playing his song during the R-Day parade — was again a desperate attempt to assuage the Assamese sense of identity. Given that the Citizenship Bill has stoked a wave of ethnic protests across the Northeast with even Mizos staying away from R-Day, the BJP hopes to build bridges by positing one who commands reverence across the region. With the Asom Gana Parishad walking out as an alliance partner, the BJP has a boiling cauldron it can ill-afford to stir in pre-election season. In fact, the Bharat Ratna to Nanaji Deshmukh, while intended to appease the RSS, still doesn’t seem biased considering his socialist credentials. Even the Opposition would find little fault in his contribution to rural development or his sustainable solutions on water management and agriculture. The only homage to anti-Congressism comes from his role in the anti-Emergency movement.
In the end, everybody, citizens included, should question the increasing politicisation of the nation’s highest civilian award and insist upon a national poll on the greatest Indian of the year. Granted some have been political tributes to founding fathers and their struggles, others have rightly honoured men of rare talent and stature. But just because a template is skewed by non-transparency doesn’t mean it cannot or should not be set right. Bharat Ratna should celebrate rare talent and cannot be allowed to be used as a tool for Settling Political Wrongs. Just as a Padma Bhushan to Nambi Narayanan cannot be looked at as an apology for wrongly labelling one of India’s best cryogenic specialists a spy.
Monday, 28 January 2019 | Pioneer
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