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The development comes days after the Modi government announced the Bharat Ratna for former Bihar CM and OBC reservation pioneer Karpoori Thakur.

The announcement of the Bharat Ratna for Advani is significant given the complicated relationship that PM Modi has shared with the 96-year-old BJP leader. It is widely believed that it was Advani who promoted Modi as a young RSS worker and elevated him in the BJP ranks, helping him eventually to become Gujarat CM in early 2000s. It is also said that it was Advani who saved Modi’s CM chair after the 2002 Gujarat riots when the then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee had appeared to be disappointed over it.

However, after 2012, as Modi began positioning himself to emerge as the party’s principal face at the national level, Advani showed discomfort which did not please the former. After his ascent to power, Advani was named as a member of the BJP’s Margdarshak Mandal, which was dubbed as a “retirement bench” of the veteran BJP leaders.

The announcement of the Bharat Ratna for Advani is also significant as it comes close on the heels of the consecration of Ram Temple in Ayodhya, given that Advani is widely considered as a key architect of the Ayodhya movement that catapulted the BJP to the centre-stage of national politics. The country’s highest civilian honour for Advani at this time is likely to add to the BJP’s Temple narrative ahead of the upcoming Lok Sabha polls.

While the Padma and Bharat Ratna awards have always been a way of political messaging, apart from recognition of a person’s contribution, the Modi government has been particularly astute in its choices. Including in the case of the Bharat Ratna for Karpoori Thakur at a time when the Opposition has been hoping to build its demand for a caste census into a plank formidable enough to take on the BJP’s post-Ram Temple Hindutva fervour.

Festive offer

The other five conferred Bharat Ratna since Modi came to power include educationist, freedom fighter and once-Congress president Madan Mohan Malviya; ex-PM and BJP leader Vajpayee; former President and Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee; Assamese singer and musician Bhupen Hazarika; and RSS leader Nanaji Deshmukh.

The honour for Malviya and Vajpayee came in 2015, within a year of the Modi government’s formation.

While Malviya was part of the Congress and served as its president for four terms, he has always been considered by the Sangh Parivar as closer to its ideology. In the freedom struggle, Malaviya was midway between the Liberals and the Nationalists, the Moderates and the Extremists, as the followers of Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Bal Gangadhar Tilak in the Congress were respectively considered.

Malviya was also the founder of the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha (1906) and Banaras Hindu University, serving as the university’s vice-chancellor from 1919 until 1938. The Bharat Ratna was an endorsement of the Sangh’s view that Malviya did not get his due under the Congress, and that it took a BJP government to correct that.

Vajpayee, of course, was the BJP stalwart with friends across parties and with a parliamentary career lasting over four decades, including nine terms in the Lok Sabha and two in the Rajya Sabha. He served as the PM for three terms – two short-lived ones in 1996 and 1998, before becoming the first non-Congress PM to complete five years in power from 1999 to 2004.

Back in the Janata Party government of 1977-79, he had served as the Minister of External Affairs, and in 1994, under the P V Narasimha Rao-led Congress government, he was awarded the “Best Parliamentarian” award.

Modi’s acknowledgment of Vajpayee’s achievements was a strong signal to his party’s own ranks, with the two leaders seen as representing two ends of the BJP spectrum. One of the lowest points of Modi’s political career was Vajpayee as PM frowning upon his government’s role during the 2002 Gujarat riots.

In 2019, the Modi government picked Pranab Mukherjee, one of the Congress’s oldest veterans, for Bharat Ratna. The award came to Mukherjee just a year after he had accepted an invite to deliver an annual lecture at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur.

The honour was seen as the BJP underlining its charge against the Gandhis-led Congress of “sidelining” Mukherjee, despite his central role in the party for years, for the sake of “dynasty politics”.

In a political career spanning five decades, Mukherjee occupied some of the top positions under Congress governments, including Finance and Home. In 2012, towards the fag end of UPA-II, Mukherjee was appointed as the President of India, which was seen as a way of “retiring” him as Rahul Gandhi came to the fore in the party.

Along with Mukherjee, the Modi government recommended the Bharat Ratna for Bhupen Hazarika in 2019. One of the foremost cultural icons of the Northeast, Hazarika wore many hats as singer, lyricist, musician, filmmaker and cultural activist, and the award fulfilled a long-standing demand from his fans and the region.

It also fit in nicely with the BJP’s push – ultimately successful – for the Northeast, and Hazarika’s native state Assam.

Another recipient of the Bharat Ratna that year was Chandikadas Amritrao Deshmukh, better known as Nanaji Deshmukh. Deshmukh had worked in the fields of education, health and rural self-reliance, but his greatest contribution was seen as building the Jana Sangh, the precursor to the BJP, as a formidable force.

Deshmukh’s efforts helped the Jana Sangh build support, politically and financially, among the Bombay business community. As treasurer of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, he was instrumental in expanding it from its image of a party of small north Indian traders, to one backed by big business in both Bombay and Guajarat.

Many argue that PM Modi has followed the footsteps of Deshmukh in shaping the BJP.

Pre-Modi era

Under the Congress governments, the Bharat Ratna choices have been more conventional – including to sitting Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru in 1955, and Indira Gandhi in 1971 (after the Bangladesh War victory). In 1966, Lal Bahadur Shastri became the third PM to get a Bharat Ratna, after his sudden death.

In 1988, under the Rajiv Gandhi government, ahead of the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections, the state’s iconic film star-turned-politician and former CM M G Ramachandran was awarded the Bharat Ratna.

In 1990, the Janata Dal government headed by V P Singh, and supported by the BJP, picked B R Ambedkar for the honour; the same year, it also awarded Nelson Mandela. In 1991, under the Narasimha Rao-led Congress government, it was the turn of Morarji Desai, Vallabhbhai Patel and the recently assassinated Rajiv Gandhi to get Bharat Ratna.

In 1992, the Congress government honoured Abul Kalam Azad, the freedom fighter and former education minister, and Ratan Tata.

Under the short-lived coalition governments after 1996, twice acting PM Gulzarilal Nanda, freedom fighter Aruna Asaf Ali and A P J Abdul Kalam (who would later become President) were among those who got the honour.

The Vajpayee-led government from 1999 to 2004 saw the Bharat Ratna go to socialist icon and Janata Party hero Jayaprakash Narayan and Professor Amartya Sen, apart from several classical musicians.

Under the Manmohan Singh government from 2004 to 2014, only three Bharat Ratnas were conferred: to classical vocalist Bhimsen Joshi, cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and Prof C N R Rao.

By 111 Tech

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