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Why Gandhi’s Remark on British Titles, Honours as Allurements Resonate Today

S.N. Sahu |
The 5 names for Bharat Ratnas announced by BJP ahead of the 2024 general elections reflect the unabashed use of the highest civilian award to seek election victory and power.
The letter urges people to reject any form of divisive politics in the country and highlights that the current regime is attempting to undermine the legacy of Gandhi.

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Consider the following passage:

“It is a Government which does not scruple to use means fair or foul in order to gain its ends. (Cries of “shame!”) No craft is above that Government. It resorts to frightfulness, terrorism. It resorts to bribery in the shape of titles, honours and high offices. (Cries of “shame!”).”

The above passage is from Mahatma Gandhi’s speech delivered in Bezwada on August 23,1920 when he was leading the non-cooperation movement and laying bare the brutal nature of the British regime before a massive gathering of people.

The idea embodied in the passage sharply describes the nature of a regime that aggressively employs any method to ruthlessly exercise power and authority and perpetuate its rule. It conveys very chillingly the message that the titles and honours it bestows on people amounts to ‘bribery’ to achieve its objectives.

BJP Manifesto for Maharashtra Elections 2019 Politicised Bharat Ratna

A 101 years later, the line that, “It resorts to bribery in the shape of titles, honours and high offices,” resonated in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) manifesto for the 2019 Maharashtra Assembly elections. It was stated there that on coming to power in the state, the BJP would take up with Narendra Modi government at the Centre to confer the Bharat Ratna on V D Savarkar, Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule.

In making the country’s highest civilian honour an electoral issue, the BJP gave a political stamp to it and the partisan end for which the award was used by the party has become amply clear. There has never been such an example in the past showing the unabashed use of Bharat Ratna for seeking election victory and power. 

Partisan Objectives Achieved

Five years later, in  2024, that ‘no holds barred’ partisan end of the party was again evidenced when the Modi regime decided to confer the Bharat Ratna on five dignitaries -- Karpoori Thakur, L K Advani, Charan Singh, Narasimha Rao and M S Swaminathan. This was interpreted in several circles as a strategy scripted by BJP keeping in mind the political and electoral ends of the party in the 2024 general elections to be held within the next three months.  

While BJP leader L K Advani is alive among these five names, all others -- Karpoori Thakur, former Chief Minister of Bihar, Charan Singh, former Prime Minister and kisan leader of Western UP, Narasimha Rao, former Prime Minister,  and  agricultural scientist MS Swaminathan --  are to be conferred the Bharat Ratna posthumously.

The dramatic impact of such decisions in favour BJP’s electoral calculus was unmistakably demonstrated when Janata Dal (United), (JD-U) president and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar left the Mahagathbandhan – a larger coalition consisting of his party JD-U, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Congress and Left parties -- and joined the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.

Kumar did so after Thakur’s name was announced for the Bharat Ratna for his pioneering role as Bihar Chief Minister in reserving jobs for other backward classes in the state. That historic decision was unprecedented in the whole of North India and preceded the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations for reserving 27% jobs in the government sector.  It was crystal clear that the political and electoral end of BJP was served after the Nitish-led JD-U joined the BJP-led alliance. It has the possibility of improving the electoral fortunes of BJP in the upcoming 2024 general elections.

In the case of Bharat Ratna for former Prime Minister Charan Singh, the BJP got the instant support of his grandson Jayant Singh who heads Rashtriya Lok Dal, which has a vote base among Jat farmers of Western UP. BJP hopes to better its electoral outcome with the support of Jayant.

It is noteworthy that both Nitish and Jayant were part of the INDIA bloc of Opposition parties and their support to BJP has weakened that alliance and possibly augmented the ruling party’s chances for achieving a better electoral outcome in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

Similarly, the Bharat Ratna for Advani is aimed at reaching out to the vast sections of people who supported him during the Rath Yatra he took out to build in a Ram temple in Ayodhya, which was consecrated by Prime Minister Modi on January 22, with massive propaganda through the media.

The political dimension to the Bharat Ratna for Narasimha Rao is discernible with BJP aiming to electorally endear itself to the people of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

Same is the case with the Bharat Ratna for Swaminathan, who espoused the cause of farmers. The BJP fondly hopes that the highest civilian honour for him will generate support from the farming community in favour of the party. But, a farmers’ agitation has once again commenced in Punjab and Haryana demanding, among others, a law for minimum support price (MSP) for several crops in tune with the recommendation of Swaminathan formula.

The agitating farmers, while marching to Delhi, are facing unprecedented coercive action at the hands of the BJP government in Haryana. Swaminathan’s daughter, Madhura, in response to stringent penal measures against agitating farmers of Punjab, said that they are annadatas and cannot be treated like criminals. She then added “…if we have to continue and honour M S Swaminathan, we have to take the farmers with us in whatever strategy we’re planning for the future.”  

In this altered scenario, it is to be seen how BJP would improve its electoral prospects in the face of the anger of the farmers even as it chose Swaminathan for the Bharat Ratna.

As stated earlier, Gandhi sharply observed in 1920 that the British regime resorted to “bribery in the shape of titles, honours and high offices.” Tragically, the manner in which the recipients of the highest civilian honour of our Republic are being chosen and the allurement it offers for attracting several political parties to BJP’s fold resonates with those incisive observations on honours and titles offered by colonial rulers.   

Salvaging the ‘Idea of India’

Writing in Navajivan on September 26,1920, Gandhi, while referring to the British Empire, insightfully wrote: “It requires brute force and the ability to use cunning methods of persuasion, bribery and coercion and to create divisions among the opponents”.

The manner in which divisions in the Opposition have been caused by using honours and awards, is making one recall Gandhi’s utterances that are playing out in 21st century India. Sanity and strength demand that India must be purged of such forces that pose a threat to the ‘idea of India’.   

The writer served as Officer on Special Duty to President of India K R Narayanan. The views are personal.

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