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Jewel thieves

At the heart of the Bharat Ratna controversy lies a disappointing truth about how we view talent in our country. Entitlement, not achievement, governs our awards system, writes Sagarika Ghose.

india Updated: Jan 17, 2008 22:04 IST

The current clamour over India’s national jewel, the Bharat Ratna, is priceless. The furore began with a story by a canny young television reporter. Wondering why India has not been able to find a Bharat Ratna for seven long years, he asked in his report why Sachin Tendulkar should not be given this top award. After all, the reporter said, if the Ratna can be given to controversial figures like VV Giri and MG Ramachandran, why not anoint as India’s jewel someone who has inspired and provided hope to the blue billion for 19 long years, who is now regarded as the best cricketer ever and who has been a match winner for India since the age of 17? Let’s stop being hypocritical about those we secretly admire and those we publicly applaud.

Shock and horror greeted the reporter’s suggestion. Sachin Tendulkar for the Bharat Ratna? Unthinkable, declared an august panel. Cricket is simply a game of bat and ball; cricket is the universe of elitist corporate India and big money; Tendulkar is a mere celebrity; cricketers are egoists who promote themselves in toothpaste ads; they aren’t the selfless servants of India’s public good or upholders of civilisational values. A day after the reporter’s story, came LK Advani’s thundering letter to the PM: A Bharat Ratna for Atal Bihari Vajpayee, please.

<b1>At the heart of the Bharat Ratna controversy lies a disappointing truth about how we view talent in our country. In a country where 70 per cent is under 35, entitlement, not achievement, governs our awards system. The political battle over the Bharat Ratna reveals how the political class remains trapped in a mindset where greatness is defined by age, death or party loyalty. Advani seeks a Bharat Ratna for Vajpayee for being the longest serving parliamentarian. An activist group seeks the Bharat Ratna for Karpoori Thakur for being revolutionary in a decade when a sizeable number of Indians were not even born. The Samajwadi Party and Mayawati seek a Ratna for Mulayam singh and Kanshi Ram respectively to keep their respective cadres from straying. Veerappa Moily of the Congress thinks Jyoti Basu should get it for being one of the oldest living communists in India. And in a real political gem, the Delhi Deputy Speaker believes Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, should get the award because he is safely dead.

All these names are political and thus their candidature depends on their political acceptability for the government. Yet, the definition of the Bharat Ratna is emphatically not political. Instead it’s an award for “exceptional service towards the advancement of art, literature, science and in recognition of public service of the highest order”. So far, of the 41 Bharat Ratna awardees, most are men and women of the state: politicians, former ministers and pms with only a small group — Ravi Shankar, Lata Mangeshkar, Bismillah Khan, Amartya Sen and J.R.D. Tata — representing civil society. With this overwhelming bias in favour of politicians, is it any wonder that there is no candidate for the Ratna? It’s not that the talent is missing, it’s just that as a new economy creates a new society, increasingly India’s talents are located outside politics, outside the state and outside the old professions. The government is not only looking for Ratnas in the wrong place, but it has also failed to come with a new definition of public service suited for the 21st century.

All over the world, talent and achievement, rather than age and durability are considered inspiring. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are candidates for the top job in the US not because of seniority in the party or the number of birthdays they’ve celebrated, but because of their present-day achievement. Their talent is visible here and now. In India, being a political wife or a cosseted son is often enough for a political career. A talent for oratory or public speaking, the talent to sway a crowd or make a moving speech or win thundering applause, a talent so crucial to Western politicians, is considered quite irrelevant here.

Bono, frontman of the band U2, may be considered a ‘mere pop singer’ in India, but his political activism is so influential that he was nominated for the Nobel Prize three times, granted an honorary knighthood and named ‘Person of the Year’ by Time. Bob Geldof, once the singer of the band The Boomtown rats, is now ‘Sir Bob’ because of his pioneering concerts such as ‘Band Aid’ and ‘Live Aid’ aimed to provide aid to Africa and is regarded as one of society’s leaders. In India, someone like Sir Bob might also be considered ‘just a pop singer’. The British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs David Miliband is a 42-year-old policy analyst who maintains his own blog and is an ardent supporter of football. Can we in India ever imagine having a 42-year-old cabinet minister? Sir Garfield Sobers, one of cricket’s most legendary all-rounders, has not only been knighted but also declared ‘National Hero’ by Barbados for his services to sport. Sir Ian Botham, notwithstanding allegations of personal impropriety, has also been knighted. Rockstars, rugby heroes and tennis icons are routinely given national and state honours in England. In India, filmstars are condescendingly paraded in political rallies to muster crowds, hardly treated with the seriousness that popular entertainers and shapers of popular tastes should be treated. The regressive division of all endeavours into ‘serious’ and ‘non-serious’ has meant that national honours are given to the ‘deserving’ as opposed to the ‘meritorious’. Deserving seems to imply not just deserving of an award but also deserving of a bit of sympathy.

A uniquely talented sportsman like Tendulkar may not have performed a public service in the old definition of the term. But he has been able to inspire like no other. He is a name that from the Pakistan-Afghan border to Down Under is synonymous with Indian exceptionality and he is the beloved of millions. Just as our economy is being disinvestment, the national awards must also be disinvested. Giving the Bharat Ratna to Tendulkar would end the licence permit raj of state awards where a musty-dusty partisan state rewards the elderly and the acceptable who have not committed the crime of being publicly popular in the mass market. It would infuse the national awards with a fresh vigour and relevance where the lamentations about fame and celebrity would be seen for the old fashioned sour grapes that they are.

A thousand flowers are blooming in India’s civil society. Artists, musicians, dot-commers, lyricists, sportsmen and women, activist entrepreneurs, inventors, youthful Gandhians — society is alive with change and with talent. Yet the state, stuck in the public sector mindset, is blind and deaf to India’s new realities. To shake the awards system out of its torpor, to awaken the government to the achievements of new India, to banish the geriatric cobwebs that cloud our vision of what is ‘acceptable’ and what is ‘not acceptable’, a bold new symbol is needed. And that bold new symbol would be a Bharat Ratna not to politicians and dead monarchs but to Tendulkar.

Sagarika Ghose is senior editor CNN-IBN