It was being talked about for months. Now it's official. Former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee is now a Bharat Ratna along with former Congress President and founder of Hindu Mahasabha Madan Mohan Malaviya. And it should come as no surprise to anyone.
Prime Minister Modi is on a mission to carve an alternative iconography. One that can counter, and in the long run, erase the Congress-etched iconography from our history and collective psyche. Gandhi, Patel have fallen. Modi Chacha now addresses students on the birthday of Chacha Nehru. If one thing Mr Modi is truly serious about, it is his Clean India mission. Cleaning India of everything Congress. The Bharat Ratna for Vajpayee is only another thread in that project.
I am no dynasty apologist and I am not ruing the decimation of Congress or justifying its selective admiration and neglect of our icons. So I am not commenting on the decision to confer Bharat Ratna on Pt Malviya. But historian Ram Guha aptly asked why honour the "dead or the long dead" and how far back in history would we be willing to go to find deserving recipients?
What's surprising today is the sense of euphoria or mass acceptance among the political and commentating class of the Bharat Ratna to Vajpayee. No one seems to have a problem. Well, here too credit must go to Mr Modi as his emergence as the 'Hindu Hriday Samrat' in the last decade made the real architects of the Ayodhya movement - Atal and Advani - look like moderates to the op-ed writing class and political opponents.
In a liberal estimate, it can be argued that Vajpayee was one of the better PMs this country has had. Is being a good PM enough reason to receive the country's highest civilian honour?
The Bharat Ratna is the recognition of a person's lifelong contribution and service to the country in a particular field.
An objective analysis of Vajpayee's life is in order. His role in the freedom movement has always been questioned. His confessional statement in 1942 on non-involvement in the Quit India Movement is well recorded. He has been a lifelong member of the RSS (no proof required for that at least), again an organisation with no association at all with the freedom struggle. In independent India, Vajpayee has been in active politics for at least six decades, but again serving the cause of the RSS and the Jan Sangh.
Then as one of the main faces of the Ayodhya movement, he participated in one the most destructive (literally) events in the country after partition. His fans will argue that Vajpayee was not present in Ayodhya on that fateful 6th day of December 1992, but in his speech on December 5 in Ayodhya, Vajpayee clearly exhorted the kar sevaks to demolish the Babri Masjid. "Nukeeley pathar khade hain zameen samtal karni hogi. Jab zameen samtal hogi, tabhi naya nirman hoga (There are stones all around. We have to level the ground. New construction can happen once the ground is levelled). (Listen to it here)
A person associated with an event that created so deep a wedge in a pluralistic society like ours cannot be a Ratna of this Bharat whose foundations are built on the constitutional principles of equality and liberty to all.
As PM, and I have already said that one can accept he was one of the better men to occupy the post and also showed shades of an accomplished statesman especially with his handling of Pakistan and Jammu and Kashmir, but during his leadership, the country also witnessed crises such as the attack on Parliament, the freeing of terrorists after IC 814, the Gujarat riots. His much publicised 'rajdharma' advice to the then Gujarat CM and present PM actually didn't move a leaf. Despite all his charisma, position and "moderate image", Vajpayee cowered under the 'parivaar' pressure.
He definitely handled a coalition well and the government lasted a full term. But so did Manmohan Singh. And we must not forget that when Vajpayee went to the voters seeking a re-election on the back of his 'India Shining' charade, he lost.
That leaves his oratory. There he was par excellence till health made him give up active politics. He even made pauses enjoyable. But is that a qualification for Bharat Ratna?
The latest entrants to the list of the Ratnas are the revenge of the Right.
The highest civilian honour has almost always been a political reward. Mr Modi is carrying on from where the Congress left off. Nehru and Indira made a mockery of the award by nominating themselves as PMs for Bharat Ratnas. The political nature of the honour is amplified by the fact that the first non-Congress politician to get the award was Morarji Desai in 1991 (again ironic as Morarji Desai as PM had scrapped Bharat Ratna in 1977 as he thought Congress had debased the honour).
My worry is we may not be any closer to restoring the glory of the country's highest honour and freeing it from political clutches. It's likely to get further politicised and imprisoned to an ideology in the days to come. As the right-wing 'intellectuals' gloated at their recently concluded Goa conclave "Our time has come".
What next? A Bharat Ratna for Savarkar and Golwalkar?
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