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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 43, October 18, 2014

Rajya Sabha seats, or Bharat Ratna, or Governorships: All Politics and Populism

Monday 20 October 2014, by T J S George



In itself, Sachin Tendulkar and Rekha treating Parliament as one of their trinkets is a non-issue. There are many in our vast and fertile country who have neither the civilisational range nor the intellectual calibre to understand the true meaning of Parliament. If such individuals are given positions they are not worthy of and they mishandle them, it is not their fault; it is the fault of the system that facilitates such mismatch. Indeed, the Tendulkar-Rekha controversy and the ongoing Bharat Ratna controversy and controversies around a consti-tutional position like Governor are all pointers to system malfunctioning. It may well have something to do with fault-lines in the Indian character.

What else can it be but a flaw in the national character that only Indian millionaires crave for honours and favours in foreign countries? We do not hear of a Chinese-American cosying up to political parties in Washington and receiving a Presidential Medal of Freedom. No Malaysian has “donated” his way to the British Parliament. Indians have. “Cash for peerage” is a scandal in Britain. The Labour Party in particular has taken generous donations from wealthy Indians and rewarded them with Lordship and other favours. Last year New York hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal pleaded guilty to making illegal donations to US politicians. A longtime fundraiser for the Clintons, Chatwal received a Padma award in 2010 triggering off the bitterest disputation in the disputation-filled history of those awards.

That same Indian penchant for shortcuts to distinction has haunted our originally well-intentioned national honours concept. The nomination system for the Rajya Sabha was devised so that the nation could benefit from the wisdom of distinguished achievers who would normally be hesitant to fight elections. The first batch in 1952 underlined that noble intent, with illustrious figures such as Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, Zakir Husain, Prithviraj Kapur and Rukmini Arundale gracing the Upper House. Then the standards began to fall, as did the standards of politicians. Into the House went the likes of M.F. Husian and Lata Mangeshkar and Hema Malini who had no notion of their obligations as MPs. Alongside appeared another trend: Businessmen with spare cash buying MLA votes to enter Rajya Sabha. In a system so crippled by its own gatekeepers, why blame Tendulkar and Rekha who were victims of idolatry, not vehicles of nobility.

Idolatry was also behind Tendulkar’s Bharat Ratna award for which he was eminently unsuited. A responsible state would have recognised cricket’s deterioration into a business activity led by fixers and money launderers and tried to divert popular attention to less corrupting games such as football, hockey and tennis. But the decision-makers went for cheap populist applause by picking a man who will, if it all, be a Ratna of cricket, not of Bharat.

Is the present government any wiser? Atal Behari Vajpayee’s nomination for the high honour will be universally welcomed for no living leader is more deserving. But Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, Subhas Bose? They were among the greatest sons of India, no doubt. But they belonged to an era of sacrifice and service. To impose today’s yardsticks of honour on them will not honour them. Should we give a Bharat Ratna to Kalidasa?

The worst impact of system malfunctioning has been on constitutional posts like the Comptroller and Auditor General and Chief Election Commissioner. When some incumbents sought and were given post-retirement jobs, these posts lost their sanctity. Now an argumentative Army Chief has been absorbed as a Union Minister immediately after retirement, an ominous precedent. In the case of Governors, the early years saw some great personages such as H.P. Mody and K.M. Munshi, Sarojini Naidu and P.V. Cheriyan occupying Raj Bhavans. But that phase passed quickly. All parties joined hands to politicise governorship blatantly. The Gandhi dynasty appointed family retainers and loyalist police officers as Governors.

If the new BJP Government asked such appointees to quit, who can complain? In fact they should have quit on their own. In the case of Kamla Beniwal, the BJP Government went into a revenge mode. But again, who can complain? As Gujarat Governor she had obstructed Chief Minister Modi’s moves wherever she could. When Modi got his chance, she got her comeuppance, a classic case of foul is fair. What made it ugly was the moral posturing—the Congress accusing the Government of malafide and the Government proclaiming its adherence to constitutional propriety. Nonsense. It was political tit followed by political tat. Why are our parties dishonest even when they don’t have to be?

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