When the highest civilian award “Bharat Ratna” was announced on 2 January 1954 by then President Rajendra Prasad, no one would ever have thought it would be dragged into the swamp of controversy. Unfortunately these last few years have nullified the glory of the award. At that time it was given only to the living dignitaries and so Mahatma Gandhi was not given. Later these criteria were changed. Subhas Chandra Bose was awarded posthumously in 1992. But due to controversy (as there is no evidence of Bose&’s death) it was withdrawn. Unfortunately in recent decades, some controversy or the other surrounds these awards.
With the Lok Sabha polls due in 2014, this highest award given to cricket superstar Sachin Tendulkar and scientist CNR Rao this year seems to have become fodder for political parties. The casualty is Sachin. Barely hours after he said good-bye to his brilliant, 24 year-long career, the UPA government awarded him the Bharat Ratna. PM recommended his name to the President after Rahul Gandhi returned from Mumbai after watching Sachin play his last match. Sachin, no doubt is an achiever who has consolidated more than 30,000 international runs, a feat which no other cricketer has managed to pull off. While rules were amended to give Bharat Ratna to sportspersons some time ago, the argument is that Hockey legend Dhyan Chand and not Sachin should have been the first to get it.
The Pandora&’s box seems to have been opened after the award was given to Sachin. Every political party that boasts of iconic leaders now demands Bharat Ratna for them. The first to respond was the BJP, which felt that former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was ignored for political reasons. Five PMs have been awarded and Vajpayee should be added to the list, the party demands. The National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah , Bihar chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Madhya Pradesh chief Minister Shiv Raj Singh Chauhan too have supported it. The Telugu Desam chief Chandra Babu Naidu is batting for former Andhra Pradesh chief minister N.T.Rama Rao. The list does not end there. In the past, the Bahujan Samaj Party has suggested the late Kanshi Ram, the communists have been peddling for Mr. Jyoti Basu, whereas the Akalis have joined the race with Mr. Prakash Singh Badal as their candidate.
The track record shows that these awards have also been conferred for political reasons. MGR got Bharat Ratna posthumously for political reasons. Jai Prakash Narain was awarded in 1999 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was Prime Minister. The VP Singh government gave Bharat Ratna to BR Ambedkar in 1990. In reality, these leaders had an eye on the vote bank. Like Ambedkar, Sardar Patel deserved it too. Narasimha Rao gave Bharat Ratna to Morarji Desai, who had abolished the Padma awards himself.
The debate has once again started whether the awards should be abolished. Is there balance in the list? Some like JD (U) leader Shivanand Tiwari are calling it a joke. Out of all those who had been given Bharat Ratna, 55 per cent has been politicians, only one each for sports and industry while there are very few scientists. The other fields have not been given adequate recognition .
Secondly, the Padma awards have run into controversies. An RTI application filed this year reveals that politicians nominated family members and colleagues in sheer disregard to conflict of interest. Personal whims and fancies play a role. Rajendra Prasad ordered a Padma Shri for his favorite nurse and Rajiv Gandhi for his school principal. Zail Singh, Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh sought to honour their eye, knee and heart surgeons respectively. But Indira Gandhi gave herself the award. A court judgment mandated that the awards should not be used as prefixes with names and that awardees in all categories be restricted to 50 or less. The number routinely exceeds 100.
South Indian playback singer S. Janaki&’s rejection of the Padma Bhushan, the Bishnois’ anger at the Padma Shri given to actor Saif Ali Khan, or a controversy over NRI hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal being awarded the Padma Bhushan, show the faults in the selection process.
Above all, as many people shrug their shoulders, these civilian honors have lost their prestige as it is being seen as patronage of the ruling class to favorite academics, doctors, artists and bureaucrats and even journalists.
Despite all these, there is a point in giving recognition to outstanding people. No doubt Mahatma Gandhi was not given the Nobel Prize but every one cannot be the Mahatma. It is not correct to say all those given the award are not deserving as most of them are. How does the Nobel Prize committee select its winners? How is the Booker Prize given? When these committees are able to choose among the international contenders why should not our government go about things in a methodical and transparent manner? Therefore the first thing is to stop politicising the awards.
Secondly, the government too should go into all aspects before deciding on the candidates. Transparency and merit should be the criterion. It may perhaps be better if an eminent persons’ group is set up to select the candidates, which could bring some credibility to the selection process.
Throwing the baby out with the bath water is not going to be the solution. Rather, streamlining the process is the best way to give awards and the government should concentrate on this aspect before more controversies arise.