In the past few years, there’s hardly anyone who hasn’t noticed the Padma awards, the kind of people they are being awarded to and the positive buzz this has generated among the people. These awards were earlier seen as dominated by elite, well-connected urbanites who were in the limelight. So, they had very little appeal beyond posh drawing rooms.
However, as someone pithily put it, nowadays, many of the Padma awardees have to be Googled — these are not people with Instagram profiles but are people with real grassroots work profiles, with no connection to politics, movies, sports or any such popular occupations that are often in the limelight.
After Narendra Modi’s elevation to the top, the Padma awards have become truly broad-based, identifying people who genuinely work at the grassroots level and recognising them. This is something that even Modi’s trenchant critics have observed and appreciated.
Society is much larger than politics and these awards have become a representative of society, rather than a hostage of politics as they used to be earlier.
But as is the trend among the Opposition, political commentators and journalists lately, nothing is left unsullied by politics. There have been attempts to politicise Padma awards this year by suggesting that states that are going to polls in the near future have been unduly prioritised. For the Congress to make such a case is understandable even if petulant. It cannot see anything beyond politics. However, even some journalists have attempted to discredit the Padma awards by bringing politics into the picture.
There has been a ham-fisted attempt to say that five states/UTs that are soon going to polls — Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Assam, Kerala and Puducherry — have bagged nearly 29 percent of the awards.
First of all, this argument can easily be turned on its head. Would a government that wants to use these awards to score political brownie points give an overwhelming 71 percent of the awards to states that are not going to polls?
Further, these states/UTs house about 20 percent of India’s population, according to the 2011 census. If such a grouping got 29 percent of the awards, it is nothing to be surprised about, unless one has political compulsions to do so.
There could be a political case made if the number of awards these states got was abnormally different.
In the UPA years, Tamil Nadu got 9.4 Padma awards per year. In 2021, it received 11 awards — no big divergence. Similar is the case with Kerala which averaged 5.3 awards per year during UPA. In 2021, it got six awards.
West Bengal averaged 4.1 awards per year during the UPA, peaking in 2011 with seven awards. In 2021, it got seven awards, which, again, is same as 2011.
Puducherry and Assam are interesting cases. Both had been roundly ignored by the UPA, despite having Congress governments for a long time. This also squares with the general neglect of the North East, smaller states and UTs by the establishment and the media — a clear case of ‘tyranny of distance’, as an eminent journalist once said.
In 10 years, the UPA found only two people worth recognising in Puducherry and only 12 people worth recognizing in Assam. Can the political commentators who want this situation to continue look people of these places in eye and tell them the NDA government is giving too many awards to them and they don’t deserve it?
Some people are sensing political calculations in Tarun Gogoi being awarded a Padma award. Gopinath Bordoloi, a leading Congressman, was awarded Bharat Ratna only in 1999, despite decades of Congress rule at the Centre. It is to Modi’s credit that Gogoi’s work in Assam is being recognised just months after Gogoi’s unfortunate demise, when his memories are still fresh. If anything, this is a gesture of statesmanship.
The NDA has only corrected a bias against the North East and smaller states/UTs in its seven years, has improved this situation with four awards for Puducherry and 27 awards for Assam. Again, this number is over all seven years and not just one year. If anything, Modi must be lauded for making the Padma awards reach hitherto lesser-reached areas.
However, now that politics is being read into the Padma awards, if one cursorily analyses the Padma awards during the UPA with a similar lens, certain observations emerge. Leading journalists received Padma awards in 2008 and 2009, pre-election and election years. Was that round of Padma awards was a ‘political affair’?
Perhaps the real reason for the cynical narrative against the Padma awards lies here. These awards were often given with political calculations to Lutyens-based elites and this politicization has been discontinued. So, there is a compulsion to discredit the awards themselves since it is not being given to ‘people like us’.
However, the profile of the Padma awardees year on year has been clearly welcomed and appreciated by the people. It has become the “People’s Padma awards” and no amount of contrived politicisation is going to change that.
The author is a public policy analyst and a commentator on current affairs