The Union Cabinet decided to award the Bharat Ratna, India's highest award, to two men, both born on the 25th of December: the former prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee; and Madan Mohan Malaviya, a former president of the Indian National Congress, member of the Imperial Legislative Council, which was the legislature in British India, for several years, and a prominent leader of the Hindu Mahasabha. Regardless of the merits of these awards, it is clear the government has been unable to break out of the past template in which such awards have had a political intent.
Mr Vajpayee, who turned 90 this Christmas, is a deserving candidate. He was an outstanding parliamentarian; fought the Emergency; served in the Opposition and as foreign minister in the Janata Party government with distinction; and finally did what till then looked impossible - rendering the Bharatiya Janata Party the lynchpin of a working national coalition. Much of this turned on his own personality, and the trust he inspired: he clearly had a methodical, pragmatic and catholic approach. This was evident, too, in how he looked at the reform agenda - giving a push to privatisation and launching major infrastructure projects like the national highways construction, but at the same time packaging hard decisions to make them politically acceptable. It is a pity that such statesmanship has been missing of late - but perhaps it has been made redundant. Certainly, Mr Vajpayee's record is not without blemishes. But given past PMs like Rajiv and Indira Gandhi have been awarded, Mr Vajpayee could not have been overlooked.
The choice of Madan Mohan Malaviya for the Bharat Ratna raises a different set of issues. Certainly, he was a stalwart of the pre-1947 nationalists and his greatest achievement was the founding of the Banaras Hindu University (BHU). While it is indeed a great institution, it is uncertain why Malaviya deserves singling out. After all, he died in 1946. But perhaps the answer is more cynical. First: the religious right has too few pre-1947 heroes, given the ambivalent attitude of its then leaders to the Congress-led nationalist movement. Such heroes need to be created, and this could be part of that process. And there could be other motivations, too. For instance, Malaviya lived and worked in Varanasi, now the prime minister's constituency.
Playing politics is always a temptation with such awards. If India must have them - and there is no reason why the republic should - it should at least avoid choosing them posthumously. It does a disservice to the cause of the award as well as to the life, work and legacy of the great Indians so honoured. Malaviya is remembered through BHU, one of the few great indigenous institutions of higher learning; the government needed his legacy more than his legacy needed the award. If Bharat Ratnas are awarded from next year, a non-partisan panel of eminent people, and not the government, should perhaps select recipients from among the living.