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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2646

Bharat Ratna For Vajpayee

By Chandramohan - Syndicate Features

The Bharatiya Janata Pary’s impatient prime minister-in-waiting, L. K. Advani, could have chosen a better course if he was sincere in raising the ‘demand’ that Bharat Ratna, the nation’s highest civilian award, be bestowed this year on his party’s ailing patriarch, Atal Behari Vajpayee. Instead of appearing to be serious in ‘demanding’ the Bharat Ratna for Vajpayee, the motive behind Advani’s letter that he wrote on the subject to the prime minister and released to the press five days later has become suspect as it may well have made sure that the coveted award eludes the country’s first prime minister from the BJP, at least in 2008.

For once, it is difficult to disagree with the government that the Bharat Ratna is not awarded on the basis of publicising letters canvassing support for a candidate. There is an established practice for choosing personalities for awarding the various ‘Padma’ awards as well as the Bharat Ratna. The committee that makes that selection has of necessity to work in ‘secrecy’.

This is not to say that letters of ‘recommendation’ should not or have not been written in the past to support candidates for the ‘lesser’ awards as well as the ultimate civilian award. But the writers of such letters are not expected to release their letters to the press for the purposes of publicity—or politics, as many see in the case of Advani’s letter.

Despite Advani’s claim of universal support--and adulation--for Vajpayee, opinion in the country may be divided in endorsing his view. It hardly enhances the stature of Vajpayee when someone else—even if it is Advani—has to prepare a ’10-point’ charter to proclaim that Vajpayee deserves the honour.

Advani’s 5 January, 2008 letter to Dr Manmohan Singh recalls the BJP patriarch’s ‘varied, well known and sustained’ contribution over a long period to nation’s life that ‘bears no reiteration’. Yet in the same breath it is Advani who ‘reiterates’ some of Vajpayee’s contributions: the longest serving prime minister after Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter, Indira Gandhi; the longest non-Congress prime minister, his ‘statesmanship’ which saw Vajpayee lauding the (Congress) government for its support to the Bangladesh independence movement in 1971 and the country’s first nuclear test in Rajasthan’s Pokharan in 1974.

Not really meaning to belittle Vajpayee’s contribution to public life it must be questioned if things like the number of years spent by one in a high office must be counted among the most outstanding facets of one’s career. It hardly qualifies to be seen as a proof of ‘statesmanship’ when an Opposition leader in India supports the government for helping the Bangladesh independence movement or conducting the country’s first nuclear test.

There was not a single dissenting voice in India in 1971; there was unanimous support for Bangladesh. The Pokharan nuclear test in 1974 did have some domestic critics whose numbers had grown by the time Vajpayee as prime minister ordered the second nuclear test in May 1998. Apart from other reasons to criticise Pokharan II, many in the country believe that the underground blasts in the Thar desert may have pumped the nationalist egos but it wiped out for ever the military superiority that India enjoyed in conventional terms over the ‘arch’ rival, Pakistan.

The tribe of instant political pundits has seen Advani’s letter as a clever move that will make the government squirm with discomfort. In reality it served just the opposite purpose. Many in the BJP are embarrassed by Advani’s ill-conceived and ill-advised move while the Congress has used it as an opportunity to get back at the BJP by alluding to the permanent warfare among its leadership, including the reported devaluing of Vajpayee himself.

The government may not be unduly worried about any adverse fallout if it decides not to award the Bharat Ratna this year too. The last recipient was the Shenai maestro Bismillah Khan in 2001. So, the eighth year without the Bharat Ratna would not really be a political disaster.

But if the Congress wants to pay back Advani in his own coin it could spring a surprise by announcing someone like, say, late Chandra Shekhar for the highest civilian award. In terms of countrywide popularity Vajpayee undoubtedly stood heads above the Thakur from Balia. But as a powerful political figure his weight almost equalled that of Vajpayee with his no nonsense approach and willingness to call a spade a spade.

One of the things that brought fame and admiration to Chandra Shekhar in his lifetime was his ‘daring’ in opposing the Congress leadership from within at a time when it was totally unthinkable. Vajpayee may have also criticised some of the policies of his party and its controversial leaders but unfortunately he also displayed a tendency to do frequent flip-flops—as in Gujarat and on Narendra Modi. The ruling party may also calculate that honouring a leader like Chandra Shekhar who died during the preceding year could pay some political dividends in the year that precedes the next scheduled general elections.

However, it must be quickly added that the purpose here is neither to oppose nor support any personality for the Bharat Ratna award. If Chandra Shekhar’s name figures it is only to illustrate the point that there could well be contenders other than Vajpayee if the choice is to be made on political grounds. The list has already grown with Mayawati staking the claim for Kanshiram and Ajit Singh for his father Charan Singh.

A growing number of people in the country think that the civilian honours should be abolished as they are reminders of the colonial days when the British used to annually bestow honours on people for their services to the Raj. Free India should not create a category of people who flaunt their importance on the basis of government ‘honours’. There are also many who think that politicians should be kept out of any officially drawn honour’s list.

Viewed in this backdrop, Advani’s lament that the Bharat Ratna has not been awarded regularly every year, particularly to ‘illustrious Indians’ who are still ‘in our midst’ may find few backers outside his coterie. If Advani is looking for a way to return the ‘favour’ to Vajpayee for the latter’s generosity in supporting him as his sole political heir, he may have to think of some other ploy.

- Syndicate Features -

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