This @PTI_News tweet captures the subtle pecking order of Bharat Ratnas in the public mind: “Professor CNR Rao also awarded Bharat Ratna”. It meant that along with Sachin Tendulkar, Rao also was given our Republic’s highest civilian award. While Sachin may have deserved the award, Rao surely did not deserve the also. Coming as it did in this context, the chorus of demands for a Bharat Ratna for former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee does sound gauche. That the demand should come in such an ‘on the face’ manner from the party he so gracefully led and mentored for long years is pretty awkward. The party went a step further. It said that it will award it to him after they come to office. Bharat Ratna for Vajpayee as a result of his party’s demand now or its decision later would most surely not do any good to his stature. Unwittingly, the Modi-led BJP by such thoughtless assertions made him look merely like a party leader and not the great statesman that he is.
That the Padma awards are less for recognition of distinction and more for doling out patronage or reward by the government of the day has ceased to be a contestable point long ago. On a different scale, however, the award of Bharat Ratna is increasingly used not for patronage, but to make political statements. It is done to claim ownership of political legacies, to co-opt regional identities, to appease sectional interests, and to exhibit loyalties. One need not go into the merit of any of the awardees. But answers to questions like when was the last time someone deserving was awarded, and by whom, or who was denied and for how long, can be found if they are seen in the light of the extant political compulsions and ideological battles.
Both the Sonia-led Congress and the Modi-led BJP have not played their cards well to leverage the current ‘Bharat Ratna for Vajpayee’ episode. BJP could have demanded Bharat Ratna for PV Narasimha Rao, or for Jyoti Basu, or even for NT Rama Rao. The Modi-led BJP would have appeared broad minded, politically more inclusive, and as a political formation that was capable of rising above the party political-electoral divide when it came to honouring the Ratnas of Bharat. It could have demanded the award for Vajpayee along with the others. In fact, they would have looked like a party with a difference had they presented a list without the name of Vajpayee. By suggesting the name of Basu, it would have come across that notwithstanding sharp ideological differences with a rival party, the BJP was prepared to honour the contribution of a political leader who repeatedly bucked the so-called ‘anti-incumbency’, and someone who presided over far-reaching reforms in land relations. By demanding the award for Rao, the party could have shown its objective recognition of his contribution to building a broad anti-Congress platform after the collapse of the Janata experiment. It could have sent a strong political signal to the Telugu people as well.
But more importantly, suggesting Narasimha Rao’s name could have delivered a ‘googly’ to the UPA and Sonia Gandhi. In fact, it could have been the perfect rejoinder to the Sonia-led Congress party’s gambit to pit Modi against Vajpayee. It would have highlighted the present dynasty-dominated Congress as opposed to the Congress of the ‘aam janta’. It would have served as a telling addition to the list of those eminent Congressmen who were politically short-changed by the Congress dynasty. It would have been seen as an honour to the man who inaugurated economic liberalization that is in line with the principal challenger’s critique of the UPA’s present welfare raj which abandoned the path of reforms. In fact the Modi-led BJP could have brought into this list someone from outside Gujarat too. Or it could have chosen any other iconic figure, not necessarily the ones mentioned. But the Modi-led BJP did not invest any strategic thought while speaking out on the Bharat Ratna issue, and only reacted without taking a measure of the grand opportunity the situation offered. Such opportunities are unlikely to come more than once in the short time that is left in the run-up to the next elections. The BJP, and Modi, has missed a great chance to make an eloquent political statement.
The Congress party is not far behind the BJP in failing to take advantage of the current situation. It shows its backroom too is equally dysfunctional. The Congress could have announced the award for Vajpayee. And what better way to politically disarm the Modi-led BJP more than that gesture? The BJP’s PM candidate would have had to rework on all his scripts for the rest of his rallies. Had the Congress added Basu’s name, it could have helped them warm up to the Left. And if it had included NT Rama Rao in that list it would have soothed the inflamed emotions in the Coastal and Rayalaseema regions of Andhra Pradesh, where the party is in serious trouble. Congress could have looked very liberal indeed. Here was a chance to repaint its image as a party that it is now ready to reconcile with political leaders who had never ever been in the grand old party and yet could rise to pre-eminent positions in Indian polity. By announcing just Sachin Tendulkar and CNR Rao, the Congress failed to use the opportunity to honour deserving individuals, and at the same time lost a chance to make a political statement that could have yielded huge dividends.
But perhaps most importantly, conferring the award on Vajpayee could have delivered a significant political message: it would have served to highlight Modi’s style in contrast to the Vajpayee style: in demeanour, language, delivery and charm. And this would have placed ‘Rajdharma’ Vajpayee a la Godhra on one side, and Advani and Modi on the other; taking the political discourse of the Right beyond the unreal confines of Advani versus Modi. It could have refreshed the memories of the voters as well as potential allies of the NDA about the personality of Vajpayee that enabled the smooth functioning of one of the largest coalitions in India’s history. And this could have been an efficient, competent response to the Modi-led BJP’s effort to introduce the Patel versus Nehru discourse.
For now though, both the Modi-led BJP and the Sonia-led Congress have shown that the drawing boards are indeed missing entirely from their strategy rooms.
(This is published on 19/11/2013 in Tehelka magazine. http://www.tehelka.com/the-politics-of-bharat-ratna/ )