Uneasy lies crown that awaits Ratna - Advani proposes Vajpayee's name, method and timing fuel murmurs

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By MANINI CHATTERJEE in Delhi
  • Published 10.01.08
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New Delhi, Jan. 9: L.K. Advani has urged the Centre to confer the Bharat Ratna this year on Atal Bihari Vajpayee, adding a weighty name to a contentious list of contenders for the nation’s highest civilian award.

The Bharat Ratna, awarded to 40 persons including two non-Indians since it was instituted in 1954, has not been conferred on anyone in the past seven years. It was last given to Lata Mangeshkar and Ustad Bismillah Khan in 2001.

In a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Advani underlined Vajpayee’s many sterling achievements — outstanding parliamentarian, longest term as Prime Minister after Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, providing a stable coalition government that lasted a full term, victory in the Kargil war, and peace initiative with Pakistan — to argue that “since an illustrious person like Vajpayee is in our midst, he rightly deserves the award”.

The leader of the Opposition’s ardent advocacy, however, has not gone down well in political circles here with even a section of the BJP questioning its timing. According to BJP sources, the letter was Advani’s “individual” initiative and not a collective decision of the party.

Critics of the letter do not have misgivings about Vajpayee’s suitability but feel that by openly lobbying for the honour, it could end up diminishing his stature and his chances of getting it.

It is also being seen as a gesture of gratitude to Vajpayee for having finally anointed Advani the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate a few weeks ago.

A senior government official pointed out that the UPA has been in power for nearly four years but Advani has chosen to write the letter only now – after it became clear that Vajpayee would not be a contender for prime ministership the next time round.

Others, who do not suspect Advani of such deviousness and regard it as a heartfelt gesture from a leader who has never hidden his admiration and respect for Vajpayee, feel it was a “tactical mistake”.

The Congress today officially remained non-committal about the demand and a party spokesperson pointed out that there was a “well-laid procedure” with a committee under the home ministry sifting through a list of contenders. But privately, Congress sources felt that if the BJP was keen to get Vajpayee the award — which has never been received by anyone from the Sangh parivar so far — it should have gone about it much more “discreetly”.

If a public demand had to be made, it would have sounded better coming from one or more of the BJP’s allies or even from Opposition leaders such as, say, Mulayam Singh Yadav or Chandrababu Naidu who have been vocal admirers of the “statesman” in Vajpayee.

BJP sources also said they would have preferred it if the government had given the award to Vajpayee “on its own” and not at the prompting of a top leader — even while holding out little hope that the UPA would ever honour a member of the Sangh parivar.

That fear, sources said, is not entirely misplaced. Although Manmohan Singh had warm ties with Vajpayee, and Sonia Gandhi was not hostile to him (in contrast to her distinctly frosty attitude to the rest of the saffron brigade), sections of the UPA and the Left parties are unlikely to endorse any statesman who was also a swayamsevak. Vajpayee, Left leaders pointed out, had proudly claimed that the “Sangh is my soul” and belonged to a party that demolished the Babri Masjid.

A possible balancing act by the UPA could have been conferring the Bharat Ratna on communist patriarch Jyoti Basu, who is older if fitter than Vajpayee. But that is likely to run into trouble with party hardliners. Those who refused to allow Basu to become Prime Minister back in 1996 are equally disdainful of honours conferred by the “bourgeois” state.

Top CPM sources said it was an unwritten code in the party for its leaders not to accept any state honours. E.M.S. Namboodiripad was one among many stalwarts who refused a freedom fighters’ pension or even the Tamra Patra awarded as a token of appreciation to those who participated in the freedom struggle.

Government sources, however, maintained that there had been “informal lobbying” on behalf of Basu in the past and the UPA would be much more inclined to give it to him rather than Vajpayee. CPM leaders, though, were clear that unlike in the case of Vajpayee, there was absolutely no question of asking for the Bharat Ratna and little chance of accepting it even if it came unsolicited.

One reason that the names of Basu and Vajpayee are doing the rounds is that the government is disinclined to confer the Bharat Ratna posthumously. The original statute, like the Nobel Prize, did not allow posthumous awards but this category was added in 1955. Ten people, including Lal Bahadur Shastri, K. Kamaraj, Rajiv Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar, Sardar Patel, MGR and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, received it posthumously. It was awarded to Subhas Chandra Bose in 1992 but later withdrawn following a Supreme Court directive in response to a PIL against the “posthumous” nature of the award.

In recent years, there has been a clamour for the award from the families and followers of controversial leaders after their death. Demands have been made on behalf of Kanshi Ram, P.V. Narasimha Rao, Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram among others.

A reverse phenomenon has also been at work. In a climate where politicians are regarded as “undeserving” to get the award for public service, there has been a move to give the Bharat Ratna to those “beloved of the masses”. The names of Amitabh Bachchan and Sachin Tendulkar, in particular, have been pushed by sections of the media in recent weeks.

The government has been wary of getting into controversies and refrained from giving the award for the last few years to avoid the conflicting demands made in a coalition era and compounded by a celebrity-driven media. Purists, for instance, feel that neither Lata Mangeshkar nor Bismillah Khan quite met the criteria of “highest degree of national service” nor did film songs or the humble shehnai qualify as being “artistic”. But then even classicists have generated controversy — Vilayat Khan publicly objected to the Bharat Ratna to Ravi Shankar, and the sultans of Bollywood have never quite understood why Satyajit Ray is the only member of the film fraternity to get it.