If all PMs are Bharat Ratnas, why are we like this?

PRATAP SHARMA in New Delhi and PALINI R. SWAMY in Bangalore write: Modern-day Indian politics, devoid of ideological or intellectual substance, or a semblance of shame, has largely become about creating nuisance and/or causing embarrassment. To that empty barrel can be added L.K. Advani‘s gratuitous advice to prime minister Manmohan Singh to decorate Atal Behari Vajpayee with the country’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna.

Whether this is the Loh Purush‘s way of saying thank-you to the Vikas Purush for making way for his installation as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for the next general election, we do not know. Whether he is conveying a coded intimation of the mortality of the mukhauta, who is in poor health, we can only guess. But in formally sending an application recommending Vajpayee’s name, and helpfully releasing it to the media, the BJP has scored three goals.

It has lobbed a candidate’s name that the BJP’s drumbeaters will keep in the air till Republic Day; it has set the cat among the left pigeons who will soon stir the hornet’s nest; and it has pushed the government into a corner.

Proof: the Congress’s emerging joker-in-chief, M. Veerappa Moily, has said, “If Vajpayee’s name can be proposed, why can’t we consider Jyoti Basu?” (Indeed, one news story today suggests that Advani suggested Vajpayee’s name only when the BJP got wind that the UPA was considering the former West Bengal chief minister for the honour.)

Don’t be surprised if you receive an SMS or email soon asking you to join the campaign to get Vajpayee his rightful due.

Or Basu, his leftful due.

No one in his senses in any part of the country would deny that Vajpayee is a good, decent and honourable man. He has been around for a long, long time. He has conducted himself both as an opposition leader and as a leader of a coalition with admirable grace. He has made some fine speeches and recited some awful poems. And above all, he has steadfastly refused to spew hatred that is the signature of most of his party men.

But do we hand out a Bharat Ratna for that?

Like most things with the BJP, Advani’s recommendation letter puts the onus of detecting the truth on the discerning reader.

“He is the first PM to have led a stable and successful coalition… He not only preached but practised coalition dharma… He lent support to Indira Gandhi during the Bangladesh war… He supported P.V. Narasimha Rao‘s economic liberaliation programme… Under his premiership, India became a nuclear weapons power… and won the Kargil war… He initiated the bilateral talks with Pakistan….”

You can believe what you want to in that list of “salient points”.

You can even disbelieve this letter to the editor of Deccan Herald today.

It would be a joke to ask for the conferment of the prestigious Bharat Ratna award on Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who as the Prime Minister looked the other way when his own countrymen were being killed by mindless mobs in Gujarat. It resulted in one of the worst genocides wherein thousands of innocents lost their lives. This single episode blackened Vajpayee’s face and weakened the secular unity of the nation beyond comprehension.

L. Krishna Rajesh, Bangalore

But Advani’s letter stands out for two reasons. It openly demands an honour, the irony of which may be difficult to detect in this day and age. And it politicises an honour that desperately needs to be depoliticised—and had been quite successfully in the last few years.

It would be fun to watch, of course, wouldn’t it, if the UPA steals the BJP’s thunder and magnanimously hands it out to Vajpayee. What will the BJP kvetch about then? But in a politics built on vengeance and rancour, and divided between pseudo-secularism and pseudo-nationalism, that is easier dismissed than considered. If the UPA government declines to bite, as is likely, rest assured that its applications will be trashed if and when an NDA government is in charge.

Already, you can hear the knives being sharpened. To information and broadcasting minister Priyaranjan Dasmunsi‘s equally gratuitous advice that it would have been better had the BJP first honoured Vajpayee within the party, you can hear Rajiv Pratap Rudy rudely reminding the world that Dasmunsi’s response doesn’t deserve a riposte: “His political stature is not such that he can comment on stalwarts like Advani and Vajpayee.”

Make no mistake, if there’s anybody in the BJP who deserves it, it is Vajpayee and Vajpayee alone.

After all, three prime ministers from one family—Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi—have walked away with the Bharat Ratna, the first two when they were in charge, the third posthumously. Two other prime ministers—Lal Bahadur Shastri posthumously and Morarji Desai—too have got it.

If a very dodgy president like V.V. Giri and a borderline chief minister like M.G. Ramachandran could get it, Vajpayee is surely assured of his place in the Hall of Fame.

But the question here is of propriety and precedence.

Advani and the BJP are using Vajpayee like a political football to score a few brownie points in a surcharged political atmosphere. Does the old man even know that such a game is being played in his name?

And they are setting a very bad precedent. A high civilian honour should be conferred by the government of the day, not to be demanded or extorted out of it, not certainly by making an obnoxious public spectacle out of it.

In violating both, the BJP will win a few short-term gains. But in the long run, the prize gets diminished in the eyes of the people who award it. And in the eyes of those awarded.

Also read: Anybody for the Bharat Ratna?

Photograph: courtesy The Hindu Business Line