Friday, July 30, 2021

Devaluation of honour

The BJP-government appears to have used this year’s Republic Day as an opportunity to propagate its ideology and confer the highest civilian award of the country, Bharat Ratna on some persons, who believed in the Sangh Parivaar ideologue and opposed to the very idea of plural India. In fact, this year, the government chose to confer the awards on some other persons, opposed to Sangh Parivaar ideology to justify the awards to some personalities, eulogized for their politics of exclusion going against the principles of Constitution of India. This is not for the first time that such developments have taken place in the country, but this appears to be a repeat of the politics ushered in by the Congress party since the inception of this award. The very nature of polity to use any available opportunity for possible political signalling and the highest award has not been spared from this propensity. It is unfortunate that over the past many years, ideological considerations have influenced the choices of the successive governments for conferring awards. Narendra Modi government’s decision to confer the Bharat Ratna on the late Assamese singer Bhupen Hazarika, who contested on the BJP ticket in the 2004 Lok Sabha election and the late Nanaji Deshmukh, a Bharatiya Jan Sangh leader and social activist evoked no surprise, the choice of former President Pranab Mukherjee seemed to have caught everyone off guard and triggered speculations. The Prime Minister himself described him as ‘an outstanding statesman of our times’. While Pranab Mukherjee’s seniority and contribution to the Indian polity are not in doubt, the fact that he agreed to speak at an RSS event last year to the disapproval of the Congress party was held out as a reason. There is more to read about the BJP’s strategy of embracing old Congress leaders such as Vallabhbhai Patel to highlight that its real opposition is to the Nehru-Gandhi family? In fact, on many occasions, the BJP has embraced the old Congress guards in its folds for one reason or the other on different occasions in the past. It is no secret that Pranab Mukherjee’s political ambitions were thwarted at one point by his inability to break the hold of dynastic politics in the Congress. Apart from the petty politicking involved in the choice of candidates for such awards, the selection of persons for a particular honour is a difficult question to resolve. This is particularly so at this juncture when the very people, who opposed the Indian Constitution and preached only hatred are at the helm of affairs. It is also unfortunate that such people have been elected in a democratic setup. Idolised leaders are integral to the imagination of a community, and arguably, for nation-building in any country. Such secular rites of veneration set an ideal that the community celebrates and strives for. This is, of course, different from the pursuit of partisan political interests in any society. It is unfortunate, competitive politics has overshadowed the majesty of the Bharat Ratna award. The honour to former film star and former chief minister M G Ramachandran in 1988 was widely seen as a cynical political move of the Congress ahead of an election in Tamil Nadu. A promise to confer the Bharat Ratna to Madan Mohan Malaviya was made by Narendra Modi during the 2014 election campaign, and he fulfilled it soon after coming to power. Claims and counterclaims for the honour have become part of assertions of power by various groups, irrespective of their political ideologies. The emergence of new political elites is generally accompanied by a clamour for greater acceptance for their leaders in the national roll of honour. A democratic, plural community must resolve these demands with respect and sensitivity. But this must not lead to a devaluation of the honour, which appears to be the case under the prevailing conditions. Transparency is not easy to achieve, and fairness is difficult to establish, given the contradictory demands of representation and majesty. But a good point to start is to discontinue posthumous civilian awards. It is a slippery slope of arbitrariness of any dispensation. Idols and ideals unite diversities in a community, and Bharat Ratnas must be selected with this in mind.