February 19, 2024


Were the latest Bharat Ratna announcements political?

Getting the country’s highest civilian honour should be a time for celebration and reflection for the recipient. Of course, not everyone is perfect, and sometimes the recipient is a person who’s probably controversial in some people’s eyes. Sometimes, the decision to confer the award could come at an opportune time.

That’s exactly what’s been debated ever since the BJP government announced the latest posthumous recipients – former Prime Ministers PV Narasimha Rao and Chaudhary Charan Singh, and agricultural scientist MS Swaminathan. The opposition called it a purely political stunt ahead of the elections. Is it?


It should be said that the most recent Bharat Ratna recipients also included former Bihar Chief Minister and social reformer Karpoori Thakur and BJP veteran stalwart LK Advani.

Ever since 1954, when the award was instituted, recipients have included eminent Indian personalities across different walks of life. It was originally restricted to people in arts, literature, science, and public services. The government expanded that to “any field of human endeavour” in 2011.

Recommendations are made by the Prime Minister to the President. The number of annual awards is restricted to three in a particular year. The first recipients were former Governor-General of the Union of India C Rajagopalachari, former President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, and physicist CV Raman. So far, 53 people have received the award, 18 of which were posthumous. Sachin Tendulkar is the youngest recipient at 40 years, and social reformer Dhondo Keshav Karve was the oldest at 100.

For someone like LK Advani, a BJP veteran, the timing of the announcement was striking. It came after the inauguration of the highly-anticipated and controversial Ram Temple in Ayodhya. Advani’s Rath Yatra was instrumental in getting the Ram movement started. It was largely seen as a culmination of the former BJP leader’s work for the BJP and the Sangh.

The announcements for Narasimha Rao and Karpoori Thakur were seen differently. Rao, the former Congress Prime Minister and Thakur, the first leader in North India to offer reservations to Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Extremely Backward Classes in 1978. Both were instrumental figures during their time.

The awards, particularly to Thakur and Advani, were seen as trying to please Mandal (social justice) and Kamandal (Hindutva). As far as Rao is concerned, it’s possibly a jibe at the Congress. Many of Rao’s admirers say he didn’t get the recognition he deserved at the party. He was also India’s first full-term Prime Minister from South India.

As the dust settles from the flurry of announcements, was this a political calculation from the BJP? If so, would that even be of any use now?

VIEW: Strike while the iron is hot

The timing of the announcement and the recipients make it clear the BJP was playing politics with the Bharat Ratna. It was a shrewd political move ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. In 1988, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi posthumously awarded it to former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MG Ramachandran. It was seen as a way to boost the party’s electoral chances in the 1989 elections.

However, the BJP has taken the politicking of the award to a whole new level. Before the 2019 Maharashtra assembly elections, the party’s manifesto promised Bharat Ratnas to VD Savarkar, Jyotibha Phule, and Savitribai Phule if it won. Such brazenness in using the award to score electoral gains was unprecedented. However, trying to mix social justice and Hindutva with the awards will likely have limited results.

So, what’s the electoral calculus? The award to Advani might seem obvious, but it should be seen in the same context as Maharashtra 2019. It’s a way for Modi to reach out to voters for whom the Ram Temple was an important issue. Advani helped mobilise the movement. As far as Rao is concerned, that announcement is squarely aimed at South India, particularly Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. The politicisation of the award is unfortunate and shows the lengths the BJP will go to for electoral gains.

COUNTERVIEW: Awarding people for their contributions

Looking at the recipients, their significance to the country is clear and so are their contributions. Looking at this purely from a political point of view belittles their socio-economic national contributions. The recipients were long overdue, and previous governments didn’t give them their due respect. Seen in the present Indian context, their contributions matter even more. Conferring the award to Rao, Advani, and Thakur shows the need for a more inclusive approach to recognising leadership.

If there is anything political, perhaps the message of Rao being a recipient is to silence the Congress’ efforts to create a North-South divide. He’s largely seen as the father of India’s economic revolution with the New Economic Policy in 1991. Opening up the country to the world through liberalisation and globalisation benefitted the entire country. He just happened to be the first South Indian Prime Minister.

Awarding Bharat Ratna to the likes of Rao, Advani, and Thakur is a testament to not only their leadership and contributions but transcend the boundaries of political ideology or lineage. It’s also a chance to highlight the Congress-Gandhis’ failure to recognise another recipient, former Prime Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh. He was a champion of agrarian reform and social justice. His legacy has often been overshadowed by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

Reference Links:

  • Bharat Ratna for M.S. Swaminathan, Ex-PMs P.V. Narasimha Rao, Chaudhary Charan Singh – The Wire
  • Story of the highest civilian award: Bharat Ratna – The Daily Guardian
  • BJP’s brazen political motives behind timing of Bharat Ratna awards – Deccan Herald
  • Why Bharat Ratna for P.V. Narasimha Rao is BJP’s jibe at Congress, outreach to South India – India Today
  • BJP Has Made the Bharat Ratna an Electoral Tool – and Nothing Else – The Wire
  • Bharat Ratna Awardees brought about Socio-Economic Changes – The Sunday Guardian
  • Bharat Ratna to Charan Singh and Narasimha Rao Expose Congress’ Disregard for Non-Gandhi Icons – News18

What is your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)

a) The recent Bharat Ratna announcements were political.

b) The recent Bharat Ratna announcements weren’t political.


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