Bharat Ratna: Modi steals the thunder

Subhasish Mitra (Wide Angle)

When it rains it pours. Thus goes the saying. Perhaps it holds true for Bharat Ratna awards this year.


Days after announcing Bharat Ratna for backward empowerment leader Karpoori Thakur and BJP veteran LK Advani, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that former prime ministers PV Narasimha Rao and Charan Singh as well as Green Revolution pioneer MS Swaminathan will be conferred the country's highest civilian award.


With this, the number of recipients of the country's highest civilian award has gone up to 53. A record five of them have been announced in 2024, maximum in a year so far.


Till now, the maximum Bharat Ratnas were awarded in 1999 when four recipients were given the coveted award.


Former prime ministers Narasimha Rao, was honoured for his liberalisation policies that revolutionised the economy. Rao, a Telugu, is widely recognised for ushering in economic reforms.


Charan Singh, was given the recognition as a champion of farmers' cause. A Jat leader from western Uttar Pradesh, Singh was one of the pioneers of the anti-Congress politics at a time when the Congress was the hegemonic political force.


Swaminathan was known as a green revolution pioneer. The renowned Indian agricultural scientist Swaminathan was instrumental in developing high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice, which significantly increased food grain production across India during the 1960s and 1970s. He is credited with helping India achieve self-reliance in agriculture during challenging times and made outstanding efforts towards modernising Indian agriculture.


A stalwart backward leader, Thakur is especially remembered for recognising the need for ensuring separate reservation for the Extremely Backward Classes, a pioneering concept in the 70s. His name was the first to be announced this year for Bharat Ratna.


Days later, the choice fell on the veteran BJP leader Advani (96) -- the only surviving member among the five recipients of the honour this year.


While Singh passed away in 1987 and Thakur a year later, Rao died in 2004 while Swaminathan breathed his last in 2023.


The last Bharat Ratna award was conferred upon Pranab Mukherjee in 2019 and was posthumously awarded to Bhupendra Kumar Hazarika and Nanaji Deshmukh.


The award was not given to anyone between 2020 and 2023. It was given to three persons in a year on several occasions, including in 2019, 1997, 1992, 1991, 1955 and 1954.


On several occasions it was given to two persons including in 2015, 2014, 2001, 1998, 1990, 1963 and 1961, while there have also been years when the award was not conferred on anyone.


In the first year, the coveted award was conferred upon C Rajagopalachari, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman.


Those conferred with this award in the past include Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, Zakir Hussain, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Abul Kalam Azad, Indira Gandhi, K Kamraj, Mother Teresa, Vinoba Bhave, MG Ramachandran, BR Ambedkar, Nelson Mandela, Rajiv Gandhi, Vallabhbhai Patel, Morarji Desai, Satyajit Ray, APJ Abdul Kalam, Jayaprakash Narayan, Amartya Sen, Sachin Tendulkar, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Madan Mohan Malaviya.


The other recipients are Bhagwan Das, M Visvesvaraya, Govind Ballabh Pant, Dhondo Keshav Karve, Bidhan Chandra Roy, Purshottam Das Tandon, Pandurang Vaman Kane, Varahgiri Venkata Giri, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, Jahangir Ratanji Dadabhai Tata, Gulzarilal Nanda, Bismillah Khan, M Subbulakshmi, Gopinath Bordoloi, Pandit Ravi Shankar, CNR Rao, Bhimsen Gururaj Joshi, Lata Mangeshkar, Chidambaram Subramaniam and Aruna Asaf Ali.


Political observers say state awards often convey a message beyond the public contributions made by their recipients.


The Modi government's pick of five of them, with three of four politicians in the list firmly belonging to the non-BJP sphere, for Bharat Ratna in this year of national elections is no exception.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought to send out the message that the ruling BJP, unlike its predecessors at the helm, is not guided by parochial politics in recognising contributions in the public life, as the party looks to break new ground during the polls.


The Modi government's move to recognise stalwart politicians from non-BJP backgrounds is resonant with political and social messaging. It is expected to boost the BJP's efforts to present itself as a party which represents pan-India interests and aspirations and recognises leading people in different fields.


In the coming days, ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP will be highlighting the difference in the approach of the Modi government and previous Congress governments in bestowing the national awards as it has often accused the opposition party of using political prism to select them.


The Bharat Ratna is the highest civilian award of the country. It is awarded in recognition of exceptional service or performance of the highest order in any field of human endeavour. It is treated on a different footing from Padma awards.


On conferment of the award, the recipient receives a Sanad (certificate) signed by the President and a medallion. The award does not carry any monetary grant.


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