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Pursue Bengal, Praise RSS, Placate Assam: Not-So-Subtle Messages in Election Year Bharat Ratnas

In recent years, there has been intense criticism of the non-transparency and lack of public participation in deciding recipients of national awards, which made a mockery of the principle 'it is not titles that honour men, but men that honour titles'.

Bhavdeep Kang |

Updated:January 26, 2019, 3:02 PM IST
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Pursue Bengal, Praise RSS, Placate Assam: Not-So-Subtle Messages in Election Year Bharat Ratnas
File images of former Pranab Mukherjee, Nanaji Deshmukh and Bhupen Hazarika.
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For public honours to be conferred with an eye on voters in an election year, is only natural. The three Bharat Ratnas for 2019 are at first glance unexceptionable and non-partisan, but are actually weighted in favour of the ruling party.

The award to former President Pranab Mukherjee is both an appeal to Bengali pride and an avowal of even-handedness. The BJP is making a strong push to establish itself in West Bengal, by filling the vacuum in the opposition left by the Communist parties. Recognising a son-of-the-soil underlines the BJP's respect for the unique Bengali identity.

The added message is that while Mukherjee spent his entire life as a Congressman and even wrote A Centennary History of the Indian National Congress, it is the BJP that has recognised his contribution to public life. He was passed over for prime ministership in 1984 and 2004, both times owing to the paramountcy of the Gandhi family, and even quit the party for several years.

Awarding Mukherjee also places him on par with Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, two of the three members of the Congress first family who have received Bharat Ratnas (Nehru in 1955, Indira in 1971 and Rajiv in 1991). He joins a long list of former presidents — from Rajendra Prasad to Zakir Husain to VV Giri — to have been conferred the award.

The conferral on Assamese cultural icon Bhupen Hazarika is a direct overture to local sentiments at a time when the state is convulsed by ethnocentric protests against the Citizenship Bill, which recognises non-Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan as citizens, on the grounds that they are persecuted minorities in their country of origin.

The BJP, by dint of strategic alliances, has established a strong footprint in the north-east and is loath to give it up. The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) recently quit the BJP-led Assam government in protest against the Bill, putting it on the back-foot. Owing to the reverence in which Hazarika, who joined the BJP in 2004 and even fought the Guwahati elections on a BJP ticket, is held in the state, the award is an olive branch to the party's allies.

The third Bharat Ratna raises the curious question of why it went to Nanaji Deshmukh, rather than to his ideological inspiration, Deen Dayal Upadhyaya. The answer may lie in Deshmukh's pivotal role during the Emergency and the JP movement, which serves as a gentle reminder of the Congress' capacity for excesses. It also recalls the BJP's historical association with the socialist forces who are now making common cause with the Congress.

Nanaji Deshmukh was a key figure in the Bharatiya Jan Sangh and Janata Party, but refused to join the Union Cabinet in 1977, preferring instead to devote his life to social service. He founded the Deendayal Research Institute (DRI) in 1972, to translate Updhayaya's philosophy of Integral Humanism — now the official doctrine of the BJP — on the ground.

While an award to Upadhyaya may have been controversial, it will be difficult for the Opposition to critique the honour to Deshmukh. His signal contribution to rural development is widely recognised. He established replicable models of water management, agriculture, agro-industry and social uplift in Chitrakoot, which invited fulsome praise from former president (and Bharat Ratna recipient) APJ Abdul Kalam.

In awarding Deshmukh, the BJP has not only pleased the RSS, but also established that the intellectual discourse in the country is no longer the sole preserve of the Centre-Left. The Bharat Ratna list, first dominated by towering figures from the freedom movement, thereafter celebrated mainly non-political figures. But the politicians who figured were invariably associated with the Congress or its allies. Former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Deshmukh are the only two from the Right to have made the cut, thanks to NDA-II.

In recent years, there has been intense criticism of the non-transparency and lack of public participation in deciding recipients of national awards, which made a mockery of the principle 'it is not titles that honour men, but men that honour titles'.

The historical dominance of Delhi, followed by Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, has also been challenged. To be fair, efforts have been made to broad-base the selection process and introduce a measure of transparency. But in an election year, leveraging awards with an eye to the voters, is inevitable.

(Author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)

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| Edited by: Nitya Thirumalai
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