Why Bharat Ratna for L K Advani?

Jacob Peenikaparambil Jacob Peenikaparambil
12 Feb 2024

When the Congress government headed by Manmohan Singh decided in 2013 to confer the highest national award, Bharat Ratna, on Sachin Tendulkar, many asked, "Why"? Some even complained to the Election Commission, challenging the government's decision because he was a member of the Rajya Sabha nominated by the Congress party. Many found it a political decision to win the votes of Sachin Tendulkar's fans. Later developments showed that Congress didn't reap any political mileage from the short-sighted decision.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his decision to honour L K Advani with the nation's highest award, many people asked the same question, "Why"? According to Wikipedia, Bharat Ratna is the highest civilian award of the Republic of India, which is conferred in recognition of "exceptional service/performance of the highest order" without distinction of race, occupation, position, or gender. In 2011, the criteria were enlarged by including "any field of human endeavour".

A cursory look at the persons to whom the award was given in the past reveals that political considerations often outweighed the decisions of the governments rather than the criteria set for providing the civilian awards. While announcing his decision, PM Modi said, "I am very happy to share that Shri L K Avani Ji will be conferred the Bharat Ratna…One of the most respected statesmen of our times, his contribution to the development of India is monumental".

The contribution of L K Advani to the development of India is controversial; many may not agree with the views of the prime minister and the members of the BJP. But his contribution to the Bharatiya Janata Party has undoubtedly been monumental because the 96-year-old BJP veteran had been instrumental in transforming the BJP into a national political force in the late 1980s and 1990s. He spearheaded the Ram Janmabhoomi movement through his 1990 Rath Yatra, and it played a central role in the party's rise. If the BJP, which had only 2 seats in the Lok Sabha in 1982, could win 182 seats in 1999, it was mainly due to the mobilization of the Hindu votes through the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, and the credit definitely goes to L K Advani.

It is pertinent to examine how Advani contributed to the nation's development. Many people perceive his contribution as more negative than positive. His politics of Ram Mandir polarized the nation. It is a fact that the Ram Janmabhoomi movement led to large-scale violence and bloodshed. Communal violence intensified, especially after Advani's arrest in Bihar on the orders of the then Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav. As historian Ramachandra Guha noted in his book, 'India After Gandhi' (2007), "the imagery of the yatra was religious, allusive, militant, masculine and anti-Muslim".

According to well-known historian K N Panikkar, between September 1 and November 20, when the yatra took place, a total of 166 communal incidents took place, killing 564 people. Uttar Pradesh, where 224 people died, saw the worst of violence.

The immediate fallout of the Rath Yatra was the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, which resulted in widespread communal violence in different parts of India. As per Wikipedia, 2000 people died in the communal riots that took place in different states of India. The India Today published an article on December 5, 2011, under the title, "Bloody aftermath of Babri Masjid demolition across India", giving the number of people killed in 13 states of India. "Any idiocy and cruelty that has ever been recorded in the annals of history re-emerge during communal riots. As religious hatred engulfed the nation and over 1,000 people died, every possible refinement in human unkindness and poignant twists of fate were on display".

The Gujarat riots in 2002, in which 1000 people were killed and more than one and a half lakh people, mostly Muslims, displaced, were also closely related to the Ram Janma Bhoomi movement. After the communal riots that immediately followed the partition of India, the biggest communal riots that took place in India could be the result of the Ayodhya movement, and L K Advani was the prominent Hindutva leader who led the movement. The question many people ask today is whether a person who led a violent movement that resulted in the death of thousands of people and the destruction of property worth crores of rupees should be given the highest award in the nation.

Harish Khare, the former editor-in-chief of The Tribunal, in his article titled, "An Advani Honoured, the Republic Diminished" in The Wire on February 3, has briefly narrated four phases of the political life of L K Advani as four Advanis. He says that these four Advanis don't deserve Bharat Ratna.

There is, first, an Advani till 1990, a one-eyed man in a kingdom of the blind – that is, the RSS/Jana Sangh/BJP crowd. Other than being a loyal, disciplined and unquestioning party operative, there is nothing in the first three decades of Advani's public life to arrest more than a passing attention. This Advani would not even deserve a Padma Shri.

It is the second Advani, who, in a game of one-upmanship with Vajpayee, set out on a rath yatra from Somnath to grab the mantle of the so-called "Ayodhya Movement". The rath yatra unleashed raw impulses and lumpen forces in both communities and figuratively ended with the ugliness and shame of December 6, 1992. Anyone who remembers this Advani would shudder at the thought of a Bharat Ratna for him.

Then, there is a third Advani, who became deputy prime minister and fancied himself as the "second sardar". But he not only failed to perform his constitutional duty when Gujarat played host to the worst carnage in modern India, he also frustrated his own prime minister's stated desire to send Narendra Modi packing for having failed to perform a chief minister's raj dharma. Hence, there is no question of giving Bharat Ratna to the third Advani.

After the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was thrown out of power in 2004, the fourth Advani was in the market, with prime ministerial ambitions fully aroused. He travelled to Pakistan to soften his image as a hard-liner and made convoluted formulations about Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The fourth Advani was also rejected by the electorate when he was projected as the NDA's prime ministerial choice against Manmohan Singh in 2009.

As the Prime Minister has not revealed his motives for honouring Advani with Bharat Ratna, one can guess his reasons for his decision, observing the current political scenario.

The immediate cause of the sudden announcement could be the dissatisfaction among a section of Sangh Parivar members due to the absence of L K Advani in the Pran Pratishtha ceremony of the Ram Mandir. After he was elected the prime minister in 2014, Narendra Modi dumped L K Advani and Murali Manohar Joshi, two prominent stalwarts of the Ayodhya movement, into the Marg Darshak Mandal. PM Modi, or any top BJP functionary, didn't refer to Advani's contributions even once in their speeches before or after the consecration ceremony of Ram Mandir that took place on January 22 in Ayodhya. Not giving due importance to the leaders of the Ayodhya movement during the consecration ceremony was like putting salt in the wound. Hence, PM Modi resorted to the masterstroke of giving Bharat Ratna to L K Advani to placate those in the Hindutva camp who were peeved at Advani's absence in the Ram Mandir's consecration.

According to a BJP insider, as reported in The Print, "Modi, after becoming the prime minister, did not push for the president post for Advani, which he deserved. Conferring Bharat Ratna shows he is correcting anomalies and cementing his position to show gratitude among cadres and people."

PM Narendra Modi converted the Ram Mandir consecration into a national celebration by involving the state machinery to convert a religious ceremony of a particular religion into a state-sponsored event. It was a demonstration of secular India becoming a Hindu Rashtra. Now, the PM wants to send a strong message that any means can be adopted to achieve the goal of Hindu Rashtra, however violent it may be, by conferring the highest civilian award on a man who led a violent movement that resulted in widespread death and destruction. During the last nine years, PM Modi and the BJP have proved that the end justifies the means.

Thirdly, Modi might have paid back his mentor, Advani, for saving his position as the CM of Gujarat in 2002. Because of his failure to control the 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim riots, Vajpayee had almost decided to ask the then-Gujarat chief minister Modi to resign. It was Advani who came to support Modi and saved his chair.

Finally, it boosts the polarization of Hindu votes favouring the BJP in the forthcoming Lok Sabha election. As the PM and the BJP don't have much to showcase as their achievements in terms of improving the quality of life of the majority of the people of India, they have to fall back on the Hindutva card again and again. One can expect a few more announcements like this before declaring the imminent Lok Sabha election dates.

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