Eyebrows do go up when the same person speaks in contrasting voices on the same thing – with political change falling between the two statements. India’s celebrated national honours, the Padma awards (Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan), have time and again been in the eye of political controversies. And understandably so.
In 2010, actor Anupam Kher tweeted: “AWARDS in our country have become a mockery of our system. There is NO authenticity left in any one of them. B it films, National or now PADMA” (sic)
This week, he said: “Happy, Humbled & Honoured to share that i have been awarded The PADMA BHUSHAN by the Govt. of India. Greatest news of my life:) #JaiHind” (sic)
We can for the moment skip the usual acrimony between Congress and BJP supporters on the merits or otherwise of his receiving the honour. Kher’s open and vocal support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi through the years has made tongues wag. But there is no denying the immense acting talent Kher has displayed, particularly in arthouse movies such as “Saaransh”.
So, it begs the question: how does a government ensure that its award is not dismissed as a goodie awarded in political patronage to loyal supporters of the powers-that-be?
It is possible to argue that every government has its own justifiable preferences based on ideology. For instance, a right-wing government is more likely to get excited about war heroes while a left-wing coalition may reach out for a regional leader or rural social workers who works among the poor in showering some coveted honour.
Beyond all this, however, there is a need to be seen as fair – and this is best done with honest criteria that can be applied and examined. Here is a set of rules that might help. Some are being followed already, some not at all, and some vaguely.
1. Be transparent: To be fair to the Modi government it publicly invited in May last year nominations for the Padma awards, seeking 800-word citations to justify the award. But it did not bother to elaborate enough. The official Web link to the guidelines in the Ministry of External Affairs shows the document missing.
2. Categorise better: Officially, India gives Padma Awards in indentified fields such as Arts, Literature, Medicine Education, Sports, Public Affairs, Trade & Industry, Civil Service, Science & Engineering and Social Work. Can these be bettered? Is a folk musician equal to a classical singer? Is an Assamese singer less than a Hindi vocalist? Is a bureaucrat economist as good as an academician?
3. Time it well: Some awards are considered to be given too late. Princeton economist Avinash Dixit, considered as a Nobel prize candidate, has been awarded the Padma Vibhushan this year, but Vijay Kelkar, no doubt a PhD in economics, received the honour in 2011. In 2013, singer S. Janaki turned down a Padma Bhushan saying it was “too late” and southern Indian artists were not given due recognition.
4. Benchmark using outside experts: It takes experts to analyse someone being given an award within the category for which they are honoured. Sitar maestro Ustad Vilayat Khan turned down a Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan (the latter twice). “This is an insult to me. If there is any award for sitar in India, I must get it first,” he said in 2000. The Ustad’s rivalry with Pandit Ravi Shankar is well-known, but in some cases experts would sympathise more with the one who refuses an award.
5. Do the Left-Out Test: In any category, it is always safe to ask if someone more deserving has been left out in the rush to honour someone – because the most visible need not be the most deserving. Many scientists and industrialists are particularly not flamboyant in media games. With Indian achievers spread across the planet, the test must be more rigorous.
Consider the fact that Alka Yagnik, Bollywood’s most famous female singer since Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle, has received a long string of industry awards, but never a Padma honour.
Does it make sense?