As the race hots up…

Now that the rules of eligibility for India’s highest civilian honour have been relaxed, that hardy perennial- Bharat Ratna for Sachin Tendulkar — has bloomed again. Namita Bhandare writes.

Now that the rules of eligibility for India’s highest civilian honour have been relaxed, that hardy perennial- Bharat Ratna for Sachin Tendulkar — has bloomed again. So have a dozen others. Yes, Sachin must get it, but not before hockey player Dhyan Chand. Why not four-time World chess champion Vishwanathan Anand? And surely we must include India’s first individual Olympic gold medalist Abhinav Bindra.

These are good names. Now toss in a few more. Justice Markandey Katju is rooting for Mirza Ghalib, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya and Subramaniam Bharati. “People are talking of giving Bharat Ratna to cricketers and filmstars,” he lamented in a widely circulated email. “We ignore our real heroes, and hail superficial ones.”

Real or superficial, it’s open season. The Assam Assembly has passed a resolution for a Bharat Ratna for Bhupen Hazarika. The Sherpa community believes that Tenzing Norgay deserves the honour. CNR Rao, chairman of the prime minister’s Science Advisory Council wants it to go to Homi Bhabha. Why not Charan Singh, asks son Ajit Singh? Why not Jagjivan Ram, asks daughter Meira Kumar? Kanshiram says the BSP. Vajpayee surely, says the BJP. MS Dhoni, insists the Jharkhand Congress. Me, says kathak dancer Sitara Devi.

The Bharat Ratna has been awarded to only 41 people. The broadening of norms to include athletes is to ensure that Tendulkar, arguably the most popular Indian on this planet, is honoured. “This is one of the biggest days of Indian sport,” said sports minister Ajay Maken. From the Mumbai Cricket Association to the state Opposition, from Union minister Vilas Rao Deshmukh to even Shiv Sena boss Bal Thackeray, everybody is batting for Sachin and there is an unseemly scrum of politicians basking in reflected glory.

At 38, it is argued, Sachin is too young to be a Ratna. In any case, he doesn’t need its validation. He owns practically every record of the game. He has the sort of financial security few athletes can dream of. He has the gratitude of an adoring nation. These are well-deserved. His service is not on par with that of Mother Teresa or Bhimrao Ambedkar but he’s given inordinate happiness to an emotional nation. I don’t belittle that.

But perhaps we should use this occasion to consider who should be on our country’s honours list — and why. I am perplexed by some choices — Indira Gandhi, commander of the Emergency, or VV Giri and Morarji Desai for instance. If you go further down the Padma awards list then the devaluation is clear. Every doctor who has ever put stethoscope to a politician’s chest gets a Padma Shri and every year generates its own controversies. Clearly, the honours system hit rock bottom when NRI hotelier Sant Chatwal, whose CV includes a jail stint and allegations of bank fraud, managed to wrangle a Padma Bhushan in 2010.

In another few weeks the new list will be out. Dhyan Chand and Sachin Tendulkar may well top that list. But along with the cheers, let this be an opportunity to infuse transparency. Let this be an occasion to make that list count, not descend to the level of a preschool award function where every child gets a prize and nobody is left out.

Give Sachin the Bharat Ratna by all means but ask also, what constitutes service and achievement. If it is the creation of jobs, then why not Ratan Tata? If it is wealth, then Dhirubhai would qualify. Or would you look at other parameters altogether: a life dedicated to others (Baba Amte)?

The original rules of 1954 did not allow for posthumous awards. Now that we have them, surely, we need a cut-off date. If Katju wants Ghalib, why leave out Kalidasa or Vyasa? Why wait for death before honour? If Bhupen Hazarika qualifies for a Bharat Ratna, were his skills not worthy of being recognised in his life?

Finally, the Bharat Ratna has eluded the one citizen to whom we owe our independence. But then, does Mahatma Gandhi really need it?

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer n
The views expressed by the author are personal

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