Bharat Ratna for former PM Vajpayee – predictable and political

December 24, 2014

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Thomson Reuters)

Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee speaks during a news conference in the university town of Shantiniketan, 150 km (93 miles) northwest of Kolkata April 2, 2004. REUTERS/Jayanta Shaw/Files  The decision of the Narendra Modi government to award India’s highest civilian honour to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on the eve of his 90th birthday is both predictable and reflective of the political contour that is associated with the Bharat Ratna.

The award was instituted in January 1954 “in recognition of exceptional service/performance of the highest order” and meant to honour those who have excelled in the arts, literature, science and public service.

Vajpayee was sworn in as India’s prime minister three times; and while two of those were very short tenures and illustrated the fickleness of parliamentary form of government, the last phase from 1998 to 2004 was an important chapter in Indian politics.

As head of the BJP-led NDA coalition government, Vajpayee took a very bold and radical step in May 1998 when India conducted its nuclear tests. Castigated by the United States-led global community at the time, Vajpayee kept a steady hand on the tiller and steered India through a short war with Pakistan (1999 Kargil war) and effected a rapprochement with the U.S. This was reflected in the hugely successful visit of the then U.S. President Bill Clinton to India in March 2000.

India had to deal with two serious terrorism-related crises on his watch – the December 1999 hijacking of an Indian civilian aircraft (known as the Kandahar hijacking) and the attack on India’s parliament in December 2001. Both events had linkages with the ‘deep state’ in Pakistan, but this did not prevent Vajpayee from seeking to improve relations with Islamabad.

Concurrently, the Vajpayee government sought to improve relations with China, and limited but important progress was made with Beijing during his tenure.  In short, Vajpayee brought a degree of quiet confidence into Delhi’s dealings with its principal interlocutors and his close personal rapport with former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao of the Congress party enabled a level of discrete consultation and policy continuity that has remained elusive in Indian politics ever since.

An astute practitioner of coalition politics, Vajpayee maintained a fine balance between the Hindu right-wing and his deeply internalised Nehruvian convictions.  To his credit, Vajpayee desisted from joining the U.S. military invasion of Iraq in 2003 despite considerable nudging from senior party colleagues. This was part of the political acumen that he brought to the office.

Vajpayee’s Achilles heel remained the excesses of his right-wing constituency. The demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the Gujarat riots in 2002 tainted his political record. Personally anguished by both developments yet constrained by party discipline and coalition ‘dharma’ (duty) – as he recounted in later interviews – Vajpayee traversed a lonely ideological path towards the end of his active political career. Former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee sits with school children, some of them wearing masks to protect them from pollution, at his residence on Earth Day in New Delhi, April 22.  REUTERS/Files

The Bharat Ratna has regrettably become a politicised award and was even suspended for a few years. Normally, the prime minister of the day recommends names to the president (limited to three in a year). The country’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru nominated himself in 1955, ostensibly due to overwhelming political consensus. His daughter Indira Gandhi also awarded herself in 1971 – though it may be recalled that Vajpayee, then an opposition member of parliament, had praised her for her role in the liberation of Bangladesh. Another prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, was given the first posthumous award in 1966.

Of the 38 recipients of the award, 13 have a direct linkage to the Congress party. One deserving political name that is still missing from the Bharat Ratna list is former Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao, who spearheaded India’s economic reforms in the early 1990s. He seems to be a casualty of the internal culture of the Congress party that deifies only the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

The new Modi-led government would have shown rare statesmanship if it had nominated Rao for a Bharat Ratna, but such magnanimity remains elusive in India’s insular politics.

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