Can it ever be the case that the Padma awards are announced and there are no accusations and controversy following them? Instituted in 1954 to acknowledge “distinguished and exceptional” individual achievements in various fields, the once prestigious awards have since come into so much bad odour thanks to lobbying and arbitrariness that today the Padma recognition has lost some of the lustre that accompanied it in the early years of the republic. Consequently, it has become something of a pattern for well-regarded individuals to decline the “highest civilian” commendation, the latest to do so being accomplished playback singer S. Janaki who, with four national awards behind her, felt it beneath her dignity to accept a Padma Bhushan at age 74. Ms Janaki’s anguish was all the more for South India not getting recognition commensurate with the region’s abundant talent. The charge is by no means baseless. This year, 20 recipients from Delhi figured among the awards compared to 21 from all the four southern States put together. Is it any wonder then that Padma awards have come to be viewed as payment for services rendered to the government than as an honour conferred for service to the nation?

Indeed, the awards have been used as patronage by successive governments, which have honoured both dubious individuals and men otherwise distinguished but rewarded specifically for a favour done. The Manmohan Singh government awarded the Padma Bhushan to the controversial hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal on the specious plea that he had played a key role in facilitating the India-United States civil nuclear agreement. The Padma Bhushan award for Chittaranjan Singh Ranawat came in the wake of his successful knee surgery on Atal Bihari Vajpayee. This arbitrariness has vested the Padma decision-making process with needless mystique, leading to frustrations and charges of bias. Admittedly there are men and women of great eminence who richly deserve to be honoured, and some of them do make it to the Padma awards. And yet the opaque selection process places them alongside those suspected to have won the awards by means more foul than fair. It is not that there are no selection guidelines. In 1996, a high-level committee headed by K.R. Narayanan, who was Vice-President at the time, set stringent qualifications for the award, stressing the “exceptional” nature of the recipient’s service. Just how well the guidelines were observed can be seen from the fact that in 2004 President Abdul Kalam had to write to Mr. Vajpayee advising caution in the selection of the awardees. The two UPA governments have, unfortunately, continued the tradition, flouting the deadline for receiving recommendations and habitually overruling the Awards Committee.

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