Unlike the Nehru-Gandhis, who conferred the country's top civilian honour on themselves, the BJP has displayed far greater maturity and magnanimity by taking the right decision
While the announcement of the Bharat Ratna for social activist Nanaji Deshmukh, former President Pranab Mukherjee and Assamese musician Bhupen Hazarika by the Narendra Modi Government has been well-received all over the country, there are some voices of dissent, especially within the Congress, with some leaders accusing the Union Government of promoting “loyalists.” Nothing can be farther from the truth and, as the details that follow will reveal, it is best that members of the Congress are far more circumspect when the debate is about honouring the real heroes of the country.
Given Nanaji Deshmukh’s phenomenal contribution to the idea of rural self-reliance and the sacrifices he made to bring about agrarian reform, the real question to ask is: Why was he not conferred the highest national honour earlier? The same is true of Bhupen Hazarika, who bridged the cultural gap between the North-East and other States of the country and made a phenomenal contribution to national integration through his music and art. Former President and Congress veteran Pranab Mukherjee, who was the most qualified Congress leader for the office of the Prime Minister, was edged out of the race by “accidental” Prime Ministers more than once because of the insecurities of a single political family. However, his judicious and thoughtful advice and non-partisan approach have proved invaluable at critical times for two Prime Ministers between 2012-17 when he was President.
Now for some very unpleasant home truths about the Bharat Ratna. As per the rules governing this award, Bharat Ratna is conferred by the President on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. It was instituted in 1954. The very next year, the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, gave himself the Bharat Ratna in 1955. Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, too, gave herself the award in 1971. Neither Nehru nor Indira Gandhi considered BR Ambedkar, the architect of our Constitution, or Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the man who got over 560 Rajas and Maharajahs to sign the instrument of accession and created an united India, worthy of the nation’s highest honour. Rajiv Gandhi, too, was given the Bharat Ratna soon after his assassination in June, 1991.
Ambedkar was conferred the Bharat Ratna by the Janata Dal-led Government of VP Singh, which was supported by the BJP. But why was he overlooked until then? Because, according to BJP leader, Subramanian Swamy, “Till then no Prime Minister dared to overrule Nehru”.
Again, the phenomenal contribution of the real architect of Indian unity — Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel — was recognised by a non-Congress Government in 1991. It was the then Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, who suggested that the Sardar be given the Bharat Ratna posthumously and former President R Venkataraman recalled in his memoirs that he “readily agreed to the proposal.” Rashtrapati Bhavan announced the awards Sardar Patel and Rajiv Gandhi simultaneously in June, 1991. Earlier that year, Chandrashekhar had proposed that Bharat Ratna be conferred on former Prime Minister Morarji Desai and President Venkataraman endorsed this too “considering his immense contribution to the freedom struggle and service to the nation.” Desai was 96 at that time.
The Narendra Modi Government’s decision to honour Bhupen Hazarika with the Bharat Ratna reminds one of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government’s decision to honour former Chief Minister of Assam, Gopinath Bardoloi, a great patriot. Bardoloi worked closely with Sardar Patel to ensure that Pakistan’s claims to parts of Assam were scuttled and this key State in the North-eastern region remained united with India. The Congress, however, did not consider him worthy of this honour. He was conferred the Bharat Ratna by the BJP-led Vajpayee Government in 1999.
Another great Gandhian, patriot and national hero, Jayaprakash Narayan, who led the movement for the restoration of democracy in the 1970s after India Gandhi imposed a dictatorship on the country, was conferred the highest civilian honour by the Vajpayee Government in 1999.
Although the Congress, under Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership was at the vanguard of the freedom movement, the party, under the leadership of the Nehru-Gandhis, became small-minded and spiteful. Between them, Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were in power for 38 years. In addition, Sonia Gandhi as Congress president was virtually the de facto head of the Government while the ‘Accidental Prime Minister’ did the de jure functions for 10 years between 2004 and 2014. The family also extracted its political pound of flesh when Narasimha Rao was the Prime Minister between 1991 and 1996.
However, even though many well-meaning citizens suggested that Vajpayee be conferred the Bharat Ratna, the Sonia-Manmohan combine dismissed the idea. Ultimately, Vajpayee was given the well-deserved honour after the peoples’ verdict of 2014 reduced the Congress to a rump in Parliament. On the other hand, the Narendra Modi Government chose eminent Congress leaders of the past and present — Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya and Pranab Mukherjee — for this honour.
This history of the Bharat Ratna shows that while the Nehru-Gandhis conferred the highest civilian honour on themselves, they never felt the need to honour some of the greatest Indians, many of whom worked alongside them for decades and played a key role in the emergence of a strong, independent and democratic India, including Ambedkar, Sardar Patel, Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, Jayaprakash Narayan, Morarji Desai and Vajpayee among others. India had to elect non-Congress Governments to ensure that these leaders got their due.
It is also true that the Nehru-Gandhis have never acknowledged the immense contribution of individuals belonging to political formations they disliked; although the Congress often harps on its commitment to diversity. Obviously, in the Congress’ lexicon, diversity does not include political/ideological diversity. On the other hand, Prime Minister Modi and the BJP have displayed far greater maturity and magnanimity in the decisions they have taken.
Finally, the Congress has often been accused of using the national award to promote its electoral prospects. A case in point is the conferment of the Bharat Ratna on Tamil Nadu film star-turned politician MG Ramachandran in 1988. The Congress, headed by Rajiv Gandhi, was desperate to win the support of MGR’s party and garner votes in the Tamil Nadu elections the following year. BG Deshmukh, who was the Cabinet Secretary at that time, recalled in his memoirs that “many in Government as well as outside it viewed this as a political move by the Congress.” Also, Deshmukh indicated that there was much opposition to awarding Bharat Ratna posthumously as this would open the floodgates. But all these arguments were over-ruled obviously because the Congress was dreaming of the votes that it would garner with this announcement.
Therefore, with regard to the Bharat Ratna, the best advice for members of the Congress would be: “Please keep your lips sealed.”
(The writer is Chairman, Prasar Bharati)