Honour and exception: On the Bharat Ratna and its recipients

The choice of past leaders for Bharat Ratnas is in tune with politics of the present 

Updated - February 06, 2024 11:20 am IST

Published - February 06, 2024 12:30 am IST

The Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian honour of the country, has been conferred on 50 people since 1954. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader L.K. Advani and the late socialist leader, Karpoori Thakur, are the newest recipients. The making of national heroes is equally about the recipients as it is about its function as a stimulant of a collective consciousness. It is often the collective that needs heroes to hold itself together. By placing leaders on a higher pedestal, the group seeks to reinforce ideals represented by them. Mr. Advani has been a defining figure of modern Indian history. As he reminisced, he joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh at the age of 14. His role in the advancement of the Hindutva ideology has been the biggest by any single leader before Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He has been a mentor to Mr. Modi, with his campaign for a temple in Ayodhya definitively changing the course of Indian politics. The campaign pushed the limits of constitutional order, based on the claim that matters of faith cannot be subject to litigation. As it happens with an extraordinary assertion of popular sovereignty, the Ram Janmabhoomi movement changed the country at several levels; the Supreme Court of India, by 2019, unanimously ruled in favour of the temple that was inaugurated by Mr. Modi on January 22.

Thakur was a central figure in the social justice politics — a euphemism for the demand for better representation of intermediate castes — of Bihar and the larger Hindi belt, who challenged the Congress’s hegemony. He served two terms as the Chief Minister of Bihar in the 1970s. Social justice politics went through phases of self discovery, and scattered into numerous parties over the years. One strand is closely aligned with the BJP. There are social justice groups that are still opposed to it, but the BJP owes its current strength considerably to intermediate castes. That ongoing process is being reinforced by honouring Thakur. In 2015, A.B. Vajpayee, the first Prime Minister from the BJP, and Madan Mohan Malaviya, the founder of the Banaras Hindu University, were conferred the Bharat Ratna. In 2019, Pranab Mukherjee, Bhupendra Kumar Hazarika, and Nanaji Deshmukh were recipients. All these selections are in tune with the politics of the present — and how the history of the Bharat Ratna has always been. All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam founder M.G. Ramachandran and B.R. Ambedkar were also conferred the award in the hope that their followers would, in turn, back the party or alliance ruling at the Centre. Mr. Advani and Thakur represent the two legs of BJP politics, namely Hindu consolidation and higher representation for intermediate castes in all fields.

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