Bharat Ratna: Heads and tales of it

At a time when India is asking why and how there are so many Bharat Ratna announcements, we take a look at who the winners are, a bit of their political journey before coming to the politics of Bharat Ratna.

New Update
Narendra Modi

On February 9, PM Narendra Modi announced Bharat Ratna for Chaudhary Charan Singh, PV Narasimha Rao and MS Swaminathan. On Feb 3, Modi had announced Bharat Ratna for LK Advani and Karpoori Thakur last month — PTI

NEW DELHI: This is a season of India’s carefully chosen gems in different fields — this is Bharat Ratna (BR) season. The gems for all seasons have been chosen for all reasons. There is more to Bharat Ratna that meets the eye ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. 

Coming to the point, we explain the controversy surrounding the Bharat Ratna or in other terms the heads and tales of it. 

BR SEASON 

At a time when India is asking why and how there are so many announcements, we take a look at who the winners are, a bit of their political journey before coming to the politics of Bharat Ratna. 

On February 9, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced Bharat Ratna for Chaudhary Charan Singh, PV Narasimha Rao and MS Swaminathan. 

On February 3, Modi had announced Bharat Ratna for veteran BJP leader LK Advani and for OBC reservations pioneer and former Bihar chief minister Karpoori Thakur last month.

POLL VAULT 

As we can see, except MS Swaminathan  — a renowned agricultural scientist and the chief architect of the Green Revolution in India — the rest include politicians, among them a former chief minister, two former prime ministers and a former prime-minister-in-waiting (in the case of Advani).

Established in 1954, India's premier civilian award, recognising individuals for exceptional contributions across diverse fields, has been given to a total of 53 individuals, with 18 posthumously. 

In 1954, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru introduced the concept of a national honour for distinguished citizens, proposing that this award be restricted to three individuals annually and not granted posthumously.

The award was suspended from 1977 to 1980, during the Janata Party regime, and was revived in 1980 by prime minister Indira Gandhi.

The award was also briefly abolished in 1992, following a Supreme Court case that challenged its constitutional validity, but was restored in 1995 after the court upheld its legality.

The Bharat Ratna recommendations are put forth by the prime minister to the president, allowing a maximum of three recipients each year. 

Originally established in 1954, the initial regulations did not permit posthumous honours.

However, in 1966, this provision was amended to pay tribute to the late prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri.

While the UPA era awarded Bharat Ratna to three individuals — all non-political figures inter alia CNR Rao, Sachin Tendulkar and Pt Bhimsen Joshi — the NDA has so far given the honour to 10 people.

In 2024, ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, instead of three, we have five BRs in a single year. 

At a time of the top civilian award becoming a tool for political messaging — with the PM announcing the honour — the NDA government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to have killed several birds with one stone with all eyes on the Lok Sabha polls. How? 

KARPOORI THAKUR 

Among his notable contributions, Karpoori Thakur made significant contributions as a political leader in Bihar. 

He was the first leader from the backward classes to hold the position of chief minister in Bihar, pioneering the implementation of reservations for the backward classes in government jobs and education. 

Serving two terms in this role, he left a lasting impact on the state's social and political landscape. 

Thakur, influenced by the socialist ideology of Ram Manohar Lohia, was also a key figure in the JP Movement, advocating for civil liberties and democracy during the Emergency period. 

However, the timing of his selection as BR awardee could not be more apt — even as many Bihar politicians across the political spectrum had demanded the top honour for him earlier — with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s caste census demand having been punctured by the BJP that has chosen a top Lohiaite that has also seen JD(U) leader and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar changing colours, as is his wont, and forming an NDA government and deserting the INDIA bloc. 

LK ADVANI 

A seasoned statesman and founding member of the BJP, Advani is recognised for shaping the party's ideology and strategic direction.

Serving as the BJP's longest-tenured president, he played a pivotal role in propelling the party to power in the 1990s.

Notably, Advani led the Ram Rath Yatra in 1990, a mobilisation that garnered support from millions of Hindus for the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

Advani joins right-wing leaders and intellectuals, including Madan Mohan Malviya, Nananji Deshmukh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who have been honoured with the Bharat Ratna title by the Modi government. 

The conferment of the Bharat Ratna follows the consecration of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya on the disputed site, where the Babri Masjid once stood, which was demolished by the Karsewaks.

While the MA Jinnah controversy involving Advani — an episode from where Advani never recovered — has been forgotten in the poll season when right signals are required, the declaration of the Bharat Ratna for Advani carries notable significance, particularly in light of the intricate relationship between PM Modi and the 96-year-old BJP leader. 

Following Modi’s rise, Advani was appointed a member of the BJP's Margdarshak Mandal, a designation often colloquially referred to as a "retirement bench" for veteran BJP leaders. 

“This history underscores the complex and intertwined political journey of these two influential figures within the BJP,” reports The Indian Express. 

With this Modi may have tried to give a message beyond the politics of Hindutva of which Advani was a torchbearer: we do respect seniors and “talent”. 

Do you remember talent? A word the PM so often uses to pillory the Congress. 

CHAUDHARY CHARAN SINGH

The esteemed farmer leader and former prime minister of India, Singh is hailed as a savior of the agricultural community.

Notably, he holds the unique distinction of being the only prime minister to voluntarily resign without facing a parliamentary vote of confidence.

Singh emerged as a steadfast opponent of the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975, leading to his incarceration alongside other opposition leaders. 

His pivotal role in forming the Janata Party proved instrumental in the defeat of the Congress in the 1977 general elections. 

Additionally, he founded the Bharatiya Lok Dal, which later amalgamated with other political entities to give rise to the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD).

Singh's selection comes amid talks of the deal between the RLD and the BJP ahead of the Lok Sabha polls. 

According to media reports, BJP is said to have offered only two seats to RLD — Baghpat and Bijnor — and one Rajya Sabha seat.

NewsClick quoted senior journalist Kubul Qureshi as saying, "BJP is not gaining anything from Jayant's entry, as Jats have been traditional BJP voters. But it is a huge blow to the Opposition because the strategy to bring Muslims and Jats together might have given a tough fight to BJP on several seats in West UP. Clearly, BJP did not want to take any political risk, hence this deal was struck." 

With the top honour for Charan Singh, Modi may have "silenced" the Jat community among farmers, which is against the BJP over the farmers' issue, sugarcane price and minimum support price. 

Political observers say Modi has sent a message to Jat farmers as well as Haryana wrestlers.  

PV NARASIMHA RAO

Rao, a distinguished scholar, statesman, and former prime minister of India, is widely acknowledged as the architect of economic reforms in the country.

Notably, he held the distinction of being the first prime minister from South India and the first from the Congress party to govern without a majority in the Lok Sabha.

Rao's leadership was pivotal in steering India through a tumultuous period marked by a balance of payments crisis, political instability, and social unrest.

Despite the challenges, he orchestrated several bold measures to liberalise and globalise the Indian economy. 

His tenure included a landmark victory for the Congress party in the 1991 general elections, a remarkable achievement considering the backdrop of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination.

In Rao’s selection, the NDA government may have set eyes on Southern India, trying to win over Andhra Pradesh leaders YS Jaganmohan Reddy and Chandrababu Naidu. 

It seems many corruption scandals against the former prime minister — including the JMM bribery case — have been ignored by the Centre, which has often accused the UPA of allowing many scams under its watch. 

The government’s decision to award Rao and earlier Pranab Mukherjee “fits well into BJP’s larger political narrative”, The Indian Express reported on Saturday, adding Modi castigated the Congress two days ago in the Rajya Sabha for naming parks and monuments after Gandhi-Nehru family members and should avoid preaching the BJP.  

That relations between Sonia Gandhi and Rao were frosty and Mukherjee never won her complete trust may help the NDA in setting political narratives ahead of the Lok Sabha polls. 

During the Telangana assembly polls in November, Modi talked of Congress “never recognising talent” beyond the family. 

Among many things that soured relations between the two Congress leaders were Babri demolition under Rao’s watch and slow pace of investigation into the Rajiv Gandhi killing case.

The award to Rao comes close on the heels of the Ayodhya Ram temple consecration ceremony that has already created quite a controversy.  

According to The Indian Express, awarding the Bharat Ratna to him will result in “refreshing memories and retelling of history. All this in the countdown to the Lok Sabha elections, a topic the Congress will not want to revisit”. 

After you remember so many things, do you see the politics of Bharat Ratna?