The moment Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the Centre in May 2014, it was a given that the country’s highest civilian award Bharat Ratna would be conferred to former prime minister of India and one of their tallest leaders, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
This was a demand that the party had been raising from time to time with the Congress-led UPA government. They had also asked for their leader to be conferred with the award when the announcement was made to honour cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar and scientist CNR Rao with it in November 2013. Not only the BJP, other Opposition parties like the JD(U) and the National Conference had also backed the saffron party’s demand. The BJP had promised then that they would confer the award to Vajpayee, if the party was voted to power at the Centre.
And so naturally when the President of India, in a rare departure from protocol, went to the house of an ailing Vajpayee on March 27, 2015 to give him the Bharat Ratna, BJP hailed the moment as one of their proudest with Prime Minister Narendra Modi saying that their leader continues to inspire millions of people in India.
Politicos too cutting across party lines welcomed the event, lavishing praise on the veteran BJP leader, unanimously saying that he was deserving of the country’s highest civilian award. This included Congress president Sonia Gandhi who wrote to him saying – “Your broad and large-hearted vision, your patriotism and eloquent oratory have always embraced the entire political spectrum and all sections of our society. It is a fitting recognition of your statesmanship, wisdom, and deep commitment to the national interests during your prime ministership and indeed throughout your years in politics.”
The conferment of the award finally to Vajpayee and the response by Sonia (even though it may be a matter of courtesy) once again saw media and various sections of the society raise the oft-raised question - Did the Congress miss an opportunity to rise above politics and give the BJP leader the honour which they had given in the past to their own leaders like former PMs Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi?
No one will deny that over the years the conferment of the country’s highest award is increasingly being seen as a tool used by the ruling party to honour their own. It has also been embroiled in some controversy or the other. Like the issue of India’s first home minister Sardar Patel being given the Bharat Ratna more than 40 years after his death. Questions have also been raised as to why country’s first PM Jawaharlal Nehru was bestowed the honour before Patel.
At the same time, certain sections asked as to why Indira, who declared Emergency in the country, was worthy of it. Likewise, people also asked as to what was Rajiv’s contribution to the nation to have got the highest civilian honour of the country.
Similarly, questions too will be raised as to whether Vajpayee was a true and worthy recipient of it. But like Nehru and Indira, Vajpayee, who was the first non-Congress prime minister to complete a full term in office, has had a long political career spanning more than five decades. And if someone is in public eye for so long and holds important positions, he will have ups and downs and he will have his detractors.
So there will be those who will question Vajpayee’s role in the demolition of the Babri Masjid (though he apologised for it later on) and letting his cadre build up the frenzy of Ram Mandir to gain inroads into the Hindu vote bank. There will also be those who will say that he faulted on the Pakistan policy (to improve ties with the troubling neighbour was one of his obsessions) or failed to remove Modi on moral grounds from the post of the chief minister post-2002 Gujarat riots even if he wanted to because of RSS pressure. And then there were the allegations of the coffin, telecom and other scams during his tenure.
But inspite of all of the above, even if the criticism of him holds some merit, Vajapyee has the kind of respect that few politicians in this country enjoy. Even his strongest critics could not help but acknowledge his statesmanship. No wonder then when he became the prime minister for the third time in 1999, his very name helped attract parties to the NDA fold who would earlier not have touched the BJP with a pole. The so-called liberal and acceptable face of the BJP made sure that the NDA government lasted a full term.
No wonder also, that Vajpayee is hailed as a cementer and someone who always wanted to take everyone along, including the minority community, by those very Opposition parties who are vehemently opposed to the so-called BJP’s ‘brand of politics’.
Thus, for his supporters, who eulogise him not just as one of India’s tallest politician and statesman, but also a great orator, a man of wit and charm and an accomplished poet, maybe the country’s highest honour should have been bequeathed on him much earlier.
If former media adviser to former PM Manmohan Singh, Sanjaya Baru, is to be believed then Vajpayee may have been honoured with a Bharat Ratna by the UPA government if Singh could have had his way. He also said that there was reluctance on the part of the Congress on Vajpayee’s name.
Maybe to quell some of the criticism for honouring who they honoured in the past and maybe to prove that they had the ability and the grace to acknowledge a forceful opponent for his “statesmanship, wisdom, and deep commitment to the national interests”, the Congress could have given the Bharat Ratna to Vajpayee.
So, was the Congress churlish in not bestowing Bharat Ratna to the man, who Nehru had predicted would one day become the PM of India, during ten years of UPA rule, perhaps due to political compulsions or vote-bank considerations or personal rivalry? The jury, I guess, is still out on that.