As expected, the announcement of the national awards for 2019 again brought forth a storm of controversy in India. This time it has drawn special attention due to the fiddly criteria used for selection. However, politics of awards is as old as the constitutional history of India. Saffronisation of awards is also a part of this history of ‘give and take.’

Politics of the selection of ‘Bharat Ratna’ has a history that goes back to the 1950s. Inevitably, debates and controversies followed. It is generally assumed that the Modi Government has done it what the previous Congress governments also did it, over decades. Many also believed that Jawaharlal Nehru, as Prime Minister, should not have accepted ‘Bharat Ratna’ in principle, while being in office in 1955.  Whether it was announced by President Rajendra Prasad by himself or whether it was done by violating the ‘rules’ already put in place a year ago, the process had set a bad precedent. Ironically, Rajendra Prasad himself received it (in 1962) when Nehru was the Prime Minister. The procedure of awarding the Bharat Ratna is apparently simple. The Prime Minister put across the names to the President of India, who, in turn, accepts nominations. There is hardly any specific regulation in place on the matter and it is more or less treated as a convention and not the law of the land.

However, in July 1955, the Rashtrapati Bhavan witnessed a dramatic scene in a banquet hosted by President Rajendra Prasad. While announcing the conferment of Bharat Ratna on Nehru dramatically, the President was reported to have confessed that he had “acted unconstitutionally” insofar as  he decided “to confer the honour without any recommendation or advice from my Prime Minister or the Cabinet” (Times of India, 16 July 1955; see also Laliwala 2018).  Many raised their eyebrows even at that stage whether persons holding (or having held) the position of Head of State or Head of Government should be a ‘natural’ choice for conferring such civilian honours/awards.

Other prime ministers like Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai, Rajiv Gandhi, and Vajpayee also received. Former Presidents/Vice Presidents like S. Radhakrishnan, V.V. Giri, A. P. J. Kalam also come in line.  Pranab Mukherjee’s choice in 2019 is obviously a part of this history of ‘self-help.’ Mukherjee was his ‘Master’s Voice’ in different ways. He was not only a silent spectator under the Modi dispensation, but a part of many crucial decisions. The invitation to RSS headquarters was not quite unexpected.  Nanaji Deshmukh was a straight choice for BJP without any pretensions of ‘bias.’ Bhupen Hazarika was ‘honoured’ for his hobnobbing with Sangh Parivar towards the end of his career.

Article 18 of the Constitution of India stipulates that (1) No title, not being a military or academic distinction, shall be conferred by the State; (2) No citizen of India shall accept any title from any foreign State; (3) No person who is not a citizen of India shall, while he holds any office of profit or trust under the State, accept without the consent of the President any title from any foreign State; (4) No person holding any office of profit or trust under the State shall, without the consent of the President, accept any present, emolument, or office of any kind from or under any foreign State (India, Ministry of Law and Justice  2018: 26).

Even as the Government of India started instituting Bharat Ratna, Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri, a major question was raised whether such “Titles” come within the purview of Article 18  of the Constitution of India. During 1960-70, Acharya J.B. Kripalani had moved a non-official bill for the abolition of such titles. He argued that although Article 18 had abolished titles, they “were sought to be brought in by the back door in the form of decorations; the decorations were not always awarded according to merit, and the Government of the day is not the best Judge of the merits or the eminence of the recipient; and these “new titles” were at first given to very few, exceptional persons; this small stream had since become quite a flood” (The Supreme Court of India 1995).  Though the bill generated heated debates in the Lok Sabha, it was eventually defeated. The following year, however, saw Indira Gandhi being chosen for the Bharat Ratna!  During the Janata Government, the institution of the national awards was cancelled through a notification. This was again revived in 1980. Ironically, the persons responsible for cancelling such titles during the Janata regime were given Bharat Ratna subsequently—Morarji Desai (1991) and AB Vaypaee (2015).

Interestingly, even some members of the Advisory Committee on Fundamental Rights in the Constituent Assembly had expressed reservations about dispensing with titles.  C. Rajagopalachari (who became the last Governor-General of India) put a suggestion across, during the debates, that it should be left open to the legislature to determine whether titles are good or bad. He was reported to have said that “if there was a nationalist, communist or socialist policy, and the profit motive was removed, there would be a great necessity for creating a new motive in the form of titles” (Supreme Court of India 1995). Alladi Krishnaswamy Aiyar, M. Ruthnaswamy et al. also supported such a position. K.T. Shah and a few others argued that “the conferring of titles offended against the fundamental principle of equality sought to be enshrined in the Constitution.”Ironically, C. Rajagopalachari himself became the first recipient of Bharat Ratna in 1954 (along with the then Vice President S. Radhakrishnan and CV Raman). Interestingly, Vallabhbhai Patel said that “such titles were often being abused for corrupting the public life of the country and, therefore, it was better that their abolition should be provided as a fundamental right” (Ibid). Again, it would appear like an irony of history that Patel was chosen for Bharat Ratna in 1991, along with Desai and Rajiv Gandhi.

However, in 1995 the Supreme Court said (in Balaji Raghavan/S.P. Anand vs Union of India case) that “the National Awards are not violative of the principles of equality as guaranteed by the provisions of the Constitution” and endorsed the system of awards etc “to recognise excellence” in the performance of certain duties enshrined in the Constitution itself (Ibid). Yet, controversies and litigations continued. For example, nomination of Subhash Chandra Bose, former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MG Ramachandran et al. created sensational news, litigations and discussions. Bose’s nomination itself was cancelled by the apex court in 1997.  While the controversies surrounding Bharat Ratna continued over years, the other awards (such as Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri) also generated similar arguments and heated squabbles.

Distribution of honours/awards etc is part of an exercise in legitimising authority and its inherent ideological mission. It happens everywhere, in all systems, in one way or other. It is a process of (not necessarily recognizing) coopting certain sections/people for ideological and social justification of the regime in place. Decades back, ‘political development’ theorists had argued that the ‘survival’ of the political systems depends on certain ‘capabilities’ and these ‘capabilities’ can even be used as yardsticks for classifying and characterizing political systems as ‘democratic’/‘authoritarian’/‘developed’/ ‘underdeveloped’/‘transitional’ etc. These capabilities include ‘extractive’, ‘regulative’, ‘distributive’, ‘symbolic’, and ‘responsive’ categories (Almond and Powell 1966/1972:190-212).If we employ these categories for judging the effectiveness of the Modi regime, I would say, it has high propensity to use ‘regulative’, ‘distributive’ and ‘symbolic’ capabilities and sustains very low propensity to exercise ‘extractive’ and ‘responsive’ capabilities. While ‘regulative’ capability has something to do with securitization of society by way of threats, persuasions and force (both legally and illegally), the other two capabilities have been employed to ‘distribute’ the spoils of the system like positions, power, honours and awards, on the one hand, and to transmit ‘symbols’ of the regime through displays, parades and show off, on the other. Many authoritarian systems are like this under the façade of democracy. However, Modi knows very well that his political future does not begin with (nor does it come to a terminal point of) such ‘distribution’ capability. If the system has had high capability of distributing goods and wealth of the country on a platform of egalitarianism (rather than distributing offices and honours) he would have been a wonderful ruler. The Oxfam Reports, however, point to the fact that the ‘neoliberal raj’ has not at all helped India reimagine itself as an ‘emerging power’ in the world. In its latest Annual Report released at World Economic Forum, Oxfam said that India’s wealthiest 1 per cent got wealthier by 39 per cent as against the bottom half of the population whose wealth increased by mere 3 per cent over the last year, accelerating the divide between the rich and the poor (Oxfam 2019). Obviously, the ‘distributive capability’ of the NDA dispensation is inherently at odds which is also fraught with lopsided paths of both governance and development.


Almond, Gabriel A, G. Bingham Powell (1966/1972): Comparative politics: a developmental approach, Boston: Little, Brown and Company (Indian edition 1972).

India, Ministry of Law and Justice (2018): The Constitution of India (as on31 July 2018),

Laliwala, Sharik (2018): “Fact Check: Did Jawaharlal Nehru Award the Bharat Ratna to Himself?” The Wire, 14 November,

Oxfam (2019): Public Good or Private Wealth,

The Supreme Court of India (1995): “Balaji Raghavan/S.P. Anand vs Union of India on 15 December1995,”

The author is Dean of Social Sciences and Professor, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He can be reached at

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