Bharat Ratna
Ghanshyam Sharma
Should Governments hand out civilian honors?
This article originally appeared in CRI content has now been subsumed in The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of

Silly, it’s Congress Ratna, not Bharat Ratna!

Bharat Ratna (or India’s jewel) is the highest civilian honour granted by the Government of India to its citizens. Since its inception in 1954, government has awarded Bharat Ratna to 41 people. Given that the Congress party-led governments have been at the Centre for almost 54 years, out of 66 years since independence, it is not surprising that about 60 percent of the Bharat Ratna recipients have been closely associated with the Congress. In fact, almost all of them have been members of the Congress. Strikingly, none of the members belonging to any other political party has been given Bharat Ratna. Jayaprakash Narayan, a former Congressman who opposed the dictatorship of Indira Gandhi had to wait for a non – Congress government to come to power to get it, while Congressman from Pakistan, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, got it in 1987!

The recommendations for Bharat Ratna are made by the Prime Minister to the President. Amusingly, Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi appear to have proposed their own names for Bharat Ratna! Other PM from the dynasty, Rajiv Gandhi was awarded Bharat Ratna when Congress came to power.

Let us look at their contributions. While Nehru is widely acknowledged for putting India on the path of socialism (which destroyed India’s economy), Indira Gandhi is well known for introducing ’emergency’ or dictatorship in India. Rajiv Gandhi, on the other hand, instigated and even justified anti-Sikh riots of 1984, and subsequently lost power when found deeply mired in corruption. Whether their contributions were positive is questionable.

The above evidence gives credence to the hypothesis that civilian honours can be used by political parties to patronize their party workers and loyalists. Congress appears to have used Bharat Ratna to glorify its loyalists by placing them in the esteemed company of eminent personalities like Dr. Abdul Kalam and Bhimsen Joshi. Recipients like Lata Mangeshkar, Pandit Ravi Shankar and J.R.D. Tata who have made immense contributions should be seen as providing legitimacy to ‘Bharat Ratna‘ (and thereby to other Congress loyalists who received it), rather than Bharat Ratna being used to acknowledge their contributions. In other words, Bharat Ratna needed Lata Mangeshkar and her ‘likes’ to be legitimate.

Congress might have lost the moral case by failing to uphold the sanctity of Bharat Ratna and exploiting it for its own benefit. However, its behaviour, in theory, is not unexpected. James Buchannan, a Noble prize winner in economics, emphasized that it is fallacious to assume that governments work for the welfare of the people. In fact politicians only care about winning the next elections; so it makes sense for them to hand out national honours to loyalists and glorify their party. It is silly to assume that political parties would bother to honour and acknowledge the contribution of its citizens.

The Bharat Ratna fiasco points out that government faces a conflict of interests when it comes to acknowledging the contributions of its citizens. Should it then be allowed to do so?

It might seem utmost desirable to give the Government the power to honour its citizens. However, Friedrich Hayek, a Noble prize winner in Economics, advises us to be cautious. In his book, “The Constitution of Liberty“, he points out that you just can’t give power to the government and then assume that it is going to use it in ways you’d like them to. His advice holds out in the case of Bharat Ratna.

Assume there is a hypothetical situation where we have politicians who are blind to their self-interests. Even then, quantifying and comparing the contributions of people in different fields would involve a degree of arbitrariness. For example, the Prime Minister will have to decide which field, for example, deserves Bharat Ratna more – entrepreneurship or music? And how does the Prime Minister compare and evaluate the contributions of an entrepreneur with those of a musician? As a matter of fact, most of the Bharat Ratna recipients have been politicians affiliated with the Congress – which seems to create the impression that ‘Congress politicians’ have contributed the most to the nation!

Surprisingly, Sachin Tendulkar, the single most unifying and inspiring person in a country as diverse as India, has not made it to the list! Since eventually, Prime Minister has to make a recommendation for the award; the award reflects the preferences and prejudices of the Prime Minister. It does not reflect the preferences of the citizens.

By giving legitimacy to awards like Bharat Ratna, we might do injustice to people whose contributions either went un-noticed or were ignored by the Prime Minister’s Office. A government is not required to recognize the contributions of eminent personalities. For example, it did not take a Bharat Ratna for people to recognize the achievements of Sachin Tendulkar.

It is ridiculous for an institution which is short of credibility and faces conflict of interests to hand out recognition to others. We should be suspicious of people who receive such awards, not hold them in awe!