The Narendra Modi government on Friday announced Bharat Ratnas to former President Pranab Mukherjee, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ideologue the late Nanaji Deshmukh and decorated singer the late Bhupen Hazarika -- the first time in four years that India’s highest civilian honour is being bestowed, and months ahead of the 2019 general elections.The awards were announced in a release from the President’s office. Mukherjee, 83, a Congressman for five decades before he became President (2012-2017) spoke at an annual RSS event in Nagpur last year. His award comes at a time when the BJP has staked claim to the legacy of Subhash Chandra Bose and Sardar Patel, both Congress leaders, but perceived to have been edged out by Jawaharlal Nehru. Mukherjee is still a very popular figure in West Bengal, where the BJP sees itself as the main contender to the ruling Trinamool Congress. The fact that a Congress leader from West Bengal has been awarded the nation’s top civilian honour won’t be lost on anyone.Chandikadas Amritrao Deshmukh, a former Rajya Sabha member who died in 2010, was a social activist who worked in the fields of health care, education and rural affairs, and was a key organiser for the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the predecessor of the BJP, in the 1970s. He is a revered figure in the Sangh, which, in recent months, has shown increasing signs of restiveness over what it sees as a delay in building the Ram temple at Ayodhya. Hazarika, a singer, songwriter and film-maker, is from Assam and was regarded as one of the most prominent personalities from the north-east until his death in 2011. The BJP has made big inroads in the region over the last five years but is facing a backlash because of a proposed amendment to the citizenship act that will grant faster citizenship to minority refuges from Muslim-majority nations Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.“It is with a deep sense of humility and gratitude to people of India that I accept this great honour bestowed upon me. I’ve always said and I repeat, that I’ve got more from the people of our great country than I have given to them,” said Mukherjee. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was delighted that the former President was given the award. “Pranab Da is an outstanding statesman of our times. He has served the nation selflessly and tirelessly for decades, leaving a strong imprint on the nation’s growth trajectory. His wisdom and intellect have few parallels,” he said in a tweet. Union home minister and senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader Rajnath Singh also congratulated former President Mukherjee. “He is a stalwart leader of this nation who has always been respected across the political spectrum. His remarkable contribution is fondly remembered by the people,” he said in a tweet..The last time Bharat Ratnas were conferred was in 2015, when educationalist-politician Madan Mohan Malviya and former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee were the recipients. A total of 48 Bharat Ratnas have been conferred by India since the honour was instituted in 1954 with father of the nation Mahatma Gandhi, President S Radhakrishnan and scientist CV Raman the first recipients.