With few nominees for existing awards, new prize to join queue

Famous around the world for being the first Asian to win a Nobel Prize, Rabindranath Tagore has now been honoured by the Indian government with a prize instituted in his own name. But will the Tagore Award ever gain the renown of the Nobel? Or even be awarded annually, as it is meant to be?

The question is pertinent given the fate of the other international awards that India is supposed to hand out every year. The Tagore award is meant “to recognise distinguished contributions towards the promotion of international brotherhood and fraternity.” India has not just one or two, but three other major international awards with similar mandates, named after Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.

The Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development, which carries a cash award of Rs. 25 lakh, has been annually awarded from its inception in 1986 till the 2010 award was presented to former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

However, the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding, which also carries a cash award of Rs. 25 lakh, has not been awarded since 2007. This is not the first big gap in its history. Since it was founded in 1965, the award was not given in 1986 and completely went missing between 1996 and 2002.

As for the International Gandhi Peace Prize, which was instituted in 1995 and carries a cash prize of Rs. 1 crore, it has not been awarded since 2005.

Both awards make it clear that if none of the proposals merit recognition, the jury is free to withhold the prize for that year. However, the question then arises that if the government has been unable to find deserving candidates for two other international peace prizes for the last few years, why is it instituting yet another award for similar achievement to gather dust?

In fact, the criteria for the Jawaharlal Nehru Award say that it “need not go only to a person holding a high public office. A person who has quietly worked for peace and international understanding and friendship between peoples of different countries may well be deserving of the Award.” In that case, why has the government – or the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, which administers the Award – not been able to find a deserving candidate?

Many of the winners of the three existing Awards are well-known names. A quick comparison with the Nobel Peace Prize shows an interesting pattern over the last decade. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan won the Nobel in 2001 and the Indira Gandhi Prize two years later. Kenyan activist Wangari Muta Mathai won the Nobel in 2004 and the Indira Gandhi Prize two years later. International Atomic Energy chief Mohammed El Baradei won the Nobel in 2005, and unsurprisingly enough, won the Indira Gandhi Prize three years later.

This coincidence – or lack of imagination – seems to be a product of the last decade only, with the Indian prize honouring Jimmy Carter, Mohammed Yunus and Medecins sans Frontieres in the 1990s, well before the Nobel Committee did the same. Mother Teresa was given the Jawaharlal Nehru Award a decade before the Nobel Committee got around to it.

The Tagore Award has been announced with fanfare, and carries a treasure chest of Rs. 1 crore along with it. Its credibility and resilience, however, will depend on how regularly and imaginatively it is awarded in the years to come.