The Bharat Ratna is India's highest civilian award, but most of its awardees (25 out of 45) are politicians. It is seen as a lifetime achievement award in politics and going down the list of awardees this becomes particularly clear.
Those in power in our parts usually honour themselves, and the Bharat Ratna is no exception. Rajiv Gandhi had no great achievements to his name but was given the honour, perhaps as a family thing, because his mother Indira Gandhi was also given one. Indians tend to keep complaining about Mahatma Gandhi not being given the peace Nobel but give little thought to why he is not given the Bharat Ratna. Given the kind of people it has been pressed on, perhaps this is just as well.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the latest awardee, himself took these things lightly and gave away the Padma Bhushan, India's third highest award, to a man, Dr Chittaranjan Ranawat, for fixing his knees.
As a nation, I would say we do not take awards seriously. This sentiment extends to our armed forces. In 1999, the army awarded its highest honour, the Param Vir Chakra, posthumously to 19-year-old Yogendra Yadav. Then it turned out that Havildar Yadav was not dead but in hospital recovering from the bullet wounds the award had been given for.
Vajpayee is a good man who often meant well, and the most likeable man in a party which had many unlikeable people. I have no issue with him being given the award, particularly, as I said, given the sort of politicians who have been given it before him.
However, I would like to take a look at a few disparate things which may be overlooked when he is being thus feted for a life in politics. Any biography of Vajpayee's written a few decades from now (though Indians are not very good at the art of biography), must begin with a single cruel fact. Vajpayee and his partner LK Advani cynically picked up an issue that made their party popular but cost the lives of 3000 Indians.
The notion that Vajpayee was the good cop to Advani's bad cop (dove and hawk) is entirely bogus, and demonstrated by the fact that Advani had to step back when at the threshold of power. Vajpayee was the prime mover of the Babri Masjid movement, and not a particularly reluctant supporter of Narendra Modi. It is thought Vajpayee was very troubled by the one-sided nature of violence in 2002, but this does not seem to be true.
In his book The Fiction of Fact Finding: Modi And Godhra, Manoj Mitta has quoted Vajpayee saying in Modi's defence:
"Wherever Muslims live, they don't like to live in co-existence with others, they don't like to mingle with others; and instead of propagating their ideas in a peaceful manner, they want to spread their faith by resorting to terror and threats. The world has become alert to this danger... What happened in Gujarat? If a conspiracy had not been hatched to burn alive the innocent passengers of the Sabarmati Express, then the subsequent tragedy in Gujarat could have been averted. But this did not happen. People were torched alive. Who were those culprits?"
His views on the violence, whether or not one agrees with this statement, are clear.
The second thing is that the only year in recent decades when India had net negative foreign investment (meaning that funds actually left India) was 1998-1999. This was because of Vajpayee's adventure at Pokhran, which cost India growth, jobs and extended poverty for many while given no strategic benefit (how is India safer today than it was in 1997?).
Vajpayee should have known the damage, because the data linking uncertainty and violence and growth is unchallengeable. Tourism in India is low growth and suffers episodic phases of negative growth when our major parties, Congress and BJP get up to mischief. The years of negative growth are: 1984 (-8.5%), 1990 and 1991 (-1.7% each) and 1993 (5.5%), 1998 (-0.7%), 2002 (-6%). These are the years of the Delhi riots, the Babri movement and the subsequent riots, Pokhran and then the Gujarat riots.
The last aspect of Vajpayee that goes more or less unnoticed is his poetry. Here is a sample:
Prithvi par Manushya hi aisa prani hai
Jo bhid main akela, aur,
Akele main bhid se ghira anubhav karta hai
(On earth, among the living
Only a human being
Feels alone in a crowd, and
Besieged by crowds when alone).
Kya khoya, kya paya jag main,
Milte aur bichadte mug main,
Mujhe kisi se nahin shikayat,
Yadyapi chala gaya pag-pag main,
Ek dhrishti beeti par dalein, yaadon ki potli tatolain
(What have I lost or gained on earth?
In this journey of meeting and separation
I've known deception at every step,
But I have no grievance, no complaints,
As I appraise the past, sift through memories. Translations by Pavan K Varma)
Perhaps if you said it with Atalji's impassioned delivery it might become better, but I doubt it. A few years ago I was interviewed by Times of India's Crest edition on the verse of Vajpayee and Narendra Modi and rather than repeat myself I quote the report: "Patel says that neither Modi nor Vajpayee are particularly skilled poets. "They both lack in their observation of the natural world. The poems are basic and have little layering. Modi's poems are slightly better than Vajpayee's because he undertakes some abstract thinking. Vajpayee's verse is unimaginably literal and dull."
I still think this is true.