Regional and electoral push for Padma awards this year

While largely free from controversy, this year’s Padma awards show an unmistakable pattern of pushing the BJP’s regional, political and electoral interests

The Padma awards have often invited charges of bias
The Padma awards have often invited charges of bias

Tasleem Khan

The Padma Awards, announced annually on the eve of Republic Day for exceptional service (Padma Vibhushan), distinguished service of a higher order (Padma Bhushan) and distinguished service (Padma Shri), this year point to an unmistakable political bias in an election year. The large number of recipients from southern states and from the OBC, SC and ST communities point to the BJP’s political outreach to these sections.

The awards have very often invited criticism and charges of bias. When hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal was chosen during the UPA years, the opposition wrote a letter to the prime minister questioning the choice. The choice of PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee's national security advisor Brajesh Mishra by the UPA government, too, raised eyebrows.

Similarly, in 2022 when the Modi government nominated former West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya and Ghulam Nabi Azad, who was still in the Congress, it created a flutter. Bhattacharya eventually declined the award, while Azad accepted it with gratitude and joined the BJP soon thereafter.

There are others who have declined the awards in the past, notable among them being historian Romila Thapar, journalist Khushwant Singh. and bureaucrat P.N. Haksar.

In a column in The Week, Sanjaya Baru, former media advisor to PM Manmohan Singh, wrote that he had become increasingly cynical about the awards after observing "the kind of lobbying that used to go on".

“In the end one must ask what national purpose such national awards serve. Apart from merely recognising good work, or gratifying friends and influencing people, the selectors must choose such individuals for these awards who may be regarded as national icons,” he wrote in a January 2021 piece titled Burnishing the Padmas.

The decision to confer the Bharat Ratna on former Bihar chief minister Karpoori Thakur (1924-88) is again presumed to be guided by the BJP’s overtures to the eastern state and to Nitish Kumar.

This year’s list includes 40 recipients from OBC, 11 from SC and 15 from ST communities, besides nine Christians, eight Muslims, five Buddhists, two Parsis, and two Jains among others.

Among the five Padma Vibhushan recipients, four are from southern states (two each from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu) and one from Bihar going posthumously to Sulabh Shauchalaya founder Bindeshwar Pathak. Actor Chiranjeevi and Venkaiah Naidu have been chosen from AP, while danseuse Padma Subrahmanyam and actor Vyjanthimala Bali are from TN.

The long list of recipients from South India is possibly designed to dispel the impression that the BJP government has a bias for the North, from where it draws its strength and majority. Despite trying hard, the party is yet to make a dent in the South. It has failed to emerge as the second largest party in Telangana, while in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, is influence is restricted to a handful of constituencies.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, however has been reaching out to the South, dressing up in local attires, speaking the local languages, and visiting as many temples in the southern states as possible.

Senior journalist and editor Ashutosh concurs. AP, TN and Kerala remain the weakest links for the BJP, and that is one of the reasons the PM is doing the rounds of southern states and greeting local icons. The Padma awards are yet another attempt to woo the South, he believes.

Journalist and public intellectual Dilip Mandal sees nothing amiss in the ruling party and government conferring the awards on political grounds. “In election years in particular, the awards have always been dictated by political considerations and for political messaging,” he says. Even if political parties feel they can gain a few hundred votes by conferring awards, they tend to take advantage of it.

Should it then be inferred that the awards are an extension this year of BJP’s social engineering and an admission that Modi’s popularity, Ram temple and Hindutva, are not sufficient to fetch votes?

Senior commentator and YouTuber Punya Prasun Vajpayee believes that Narendra Modi has redefined politics and marginalised other parties. The consistent messaging is that no political party can match the stature, reach and popularity of the BJP.

Ashutosh dismisses all talk of social engineering and would like to see the Padma Awards as symbolic and mere tokenism. If the BJP were serious about social justice promoted by Karpoori Thakur, it would have accepted reservations, the caste census and affirmative action for OBCs, SCs, STs and minorities.

“Selecting eight Muslims for Padma awards does not explain why there is not a single Muslim in the Union cabinet or why there is not a single Muslim BJP MLA in Uttar Pradesh,” he points out. “If the BJP were serious, it would have to show its seriousness on the ground, where there is no evidence that its attitude or approach to Muslims has undergone any change.”

Bajpai does not agree that West bengal and Bihar are also weak links for the BJP. The party, he argues, has emerged as the second largest political party in these states in the last one-and-a-half decades, and the Bharat Ratna to Karpoori Thakur is meant to consolidate its hold in Bihar. Ashutosh demurs and maintains that both the states will remain weak links for the BJP, which has allowed confusion to prevail about its agenda.

Controversies are possibly unavoidable when national awards are announced, as they rarely remain untouched by personal predilections and political interests. Awards for the arts, science, education and social work, too, have rarely been exceptions to this trend.

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