Modi govt subtly jabs Congress with Bharat Ratna for Pranab Mukherjee, seeks to gain ground in West Bengal
The Bharat Ratna for Pranab babu carries even greater significance beyond the BJP-Congress political rivalry
Whether the signaling may serve any real political purpose is debatable.
The award to Mukherjee by the Modi government is intended to deliver several messages at once
Congress’ fault lines are also being exposed
To think that Bharat Ratna and Padma awards are only about merit and achievements is to stay within a bubble of unaffordable innocence. The awards are and have always been primarily about political signalling. Through its choice of Bharat Ratna recipients, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has just delivered a masterclass in political signalling. Whether the signalling may serve any real political purpose is debatable.
What the signalling shows is that slowly but surely the narrative of India is being reclaimed and suppressed ‘ideas of India’ are coming to the fore that ran parallel to the official, sanitised ‘idea of India’ flowing from one dynasty. This is a slow, yet momentous and irreversible change that cannot be turned back even if political power changes hands. India’s highest civilian award for former president Pranab Mukherjee — an avowed Congressman and a Nehruvian socialist — by an National Democratic Alliance government breaches the political divide. But if breaching the political divide and recognising giant leaders from the Congress stable who never found favour with the Dynasty were the sole determinants, then former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao would have been a better choice.
Mukherjee’s profile, however, is unique. By conferring the Bharat Ratna upon him, the Modi government has carried out a giant trolling of the Congress party, who always perceived Mukerjee as a bit of an indispensable inconvenience. A Congressman for five decades, Mukherjee was twice passed over by the Dynasty for the prime minister’s chair despite the fact that on both occasions he was the senior most leader and most eligible candidate.
Pranab babu, as he was known in New Delhi during his long association with the Congress and the power centres, was widely expected to take over as the prime minister after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Rajiv Gandhi became the prime minister instead and Mukherjee, who was opposed to the dynastic succession, had to leave the party. He floated the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress that later merged with Rajiv-led Congress in 1989 and the veteran was eventually reinstated.
Minzhaz Merchant, author and Rajiv Gandhi’s biographer, writes on Twitter:
Pranab Mukherjee boarded special Calcutta-Delhi flight on Oct 31, 1984 after hearing about Mrs Gandhi’s assassination. Co-passengers? Rajiv Gandhi & other Cong leaders. Throughout flight Pranabda sat alone, expecting as seniormost Cong leader to be appointed PM. Rest is history.
— Minhaz Merchant (@MinhazMerchant) January 25, 2019
The second opportunity came in 2004 when the United Progressive Alliance came to power by defeating the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA, but this time Sonia Gandhi bypassed Mukherjee to trust Manmohan Singh, a technocrat, with the top job. Neither in experience nor seniority was Mukherjee behind Singh. Mukherjee, Congress’ Man Friday, was India’s youngest finance minister at the age of 47 (in 1982). He later handled the finance portfolio again and was also in charge at various times of two crucial ministries: defence and external affairs. Though the veteran Congressman became close to the Gandhis, the trust deficit between him and the family never completely dissipated. Mukherjee was reportedly not the top choice for Sonia for even the president’s post. The UPA chairperson apparently favoured Hamid Ansari, but had to ultimately buckle under pressure the circumstances.
The award to Mukherjee by the Modi government is intended to deliver several messages at once. It showcases BJP’s fairness in recognising a Congress leader as opposed to Congress’ petty-mindedness in not being able to breach the ideological divide in honouring someone such as Vajpayee. Congress’ internal fault lines are also being exposed with recognition for a leader who developed an uneasy relationship with the Gandhi family post Indira’s assassination. Modi is essentially highlighting the malevolence of Congress culture that places pliancy and bloodline over merit.
The fact that ex-president Mukherjee visited the RSS headquarters in Nagpur for a lecture and courted the wrath of Congress leadership could have been an added incentive. But the Bharat Ratna for Pranab babu carries even greater significance beyond the BJP-Congress political rivalry. Ahead of a hotly-contested Lok Sabha polls where the BJP is looking to recover some of its expected losses in the Hindi heartland by gaining in the east, the award for the quintessential ‘Bangali bhadralok’ (Bengali gentleman) from Birbhum is expected to carry special significance for Bengal. It is simultaneously BJP’s bid to endear itself to the electorate from a state from where it hopes to do well, and also a clever move to catch Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on the wrong foot.
It is interesting that Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee has not yet congratulated the former president for being conferred the Bharat Ratna: construed as a moment of pride for all Bengalis. Mamata has been recently stressing on regional pride and Bengal’s cultural identity, ostensibly to tackle the growing challenge posed by BJP which is seen largely as a ‘north Indian party’ in Bengal. Given the recent invoking of virulent Bengali chauvinism, Mamata should have seized the opportunity to congratulate Pranab babu who epitomizes the ‘bhadralok’ culture. The fact that she couldn’t points to political difficulty she faces.
This signalling is evident in the choice of other two awardees. The posthumous Bharat Ratna for the late Bhupen Hazarika, the ‘bard of Brahmaputra’, simultaneously recognises his genius and offers a solace to people from Assam at a time of great political unrest. Similarly, the nod to the core RSS base is evident from the way the late Nanaji Deshmukh was posthumously honoured, a man whose contribution remains under-appreciated in the field of social work, rural development and education.
Nanaji Deshmukh's stellar contribution towards rural development showed the way for a new paradigm of empowering those living in our villages.
He personifies humility, compassion and service to the downtrodden. He is a Bharat Ratna in the truest sense!
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) January 25, 2019
In his book ‘Religion, Caste and Politics in India,’ academic Christophe Jefferlot referred to him as “an exceptionally dyanmic pracharak” who started an educational movement in rural India through Saraswati Shishu Mandir schools.
Though the awards carry a lot of political significance, whether that will translate into tangible benefits for BJP remains the question. Not even the best psephologists or political scientists know for certain if people vote on the basis of quotidian impulses or abstract ideas such as regional pride.
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