The late P.K. Iyengar, former chairman of the atomic energy commission, head of the theoretical group at BARC and father of the implosion-triggered fission device tested in May 1974 — incidentally, still the only proven weapon in the country’s nuclear arsenal, and responsible, moreover, for seminal work in the field of neutron scattering done in partnership with the Physics Nobel Prize Winner B.N. Brockhouse, was awarded the Padma Bhushan. Scan the list of Padma Bhushan awardees in recent years to go no further back in time, and one discovers all kinds of people of dubious merit being similarly rewarded, including a number of media-persons. Can it reasonably be contended that any of these worthies have touched the heights even in their own field that Dr. Iyengar reached in his, let alone served the national interest, or contributed to a national cause, in any critical way? No doubt, standards have plunged since 1975 when Dr. Iyengar was so recognized. Even so, the Padma awards, prima facie, are beginning to resemble patronage gongs that well-placed political leaders or governments-of-the-day choose to hand out liberally to those who have, by whatever means, been helpful, which aspect will be borne out again when another awards list is announced come Republic Day. This is travesty that is fast becoming a farce with the clamour, not so much among the people at-large, as in the ruling party circles beset by political troubles, for conferring Bharat Ratna on Sachin Tendulkar – a cause the Sports Minister Ajay Maken has also taken up.
That politicians are enthused by the “Ratna for Sachin” campaign is not surprising, geared as they are to riding whatever “feel good” wave presents itself. It is, moreover, a populist gesture and costs the government nothing compared to the expensive giveaways (such as the Rs one lakh crore free food scheme) and similar entitlement programs that will push the country into a downward deficit spiral and rob the Indian economy of what little buoyancy it has so far been able to muster despite the absence of second generation economic reforms Prime Minister Manmohan Singh keeps promising. It is anticipated that the prospective elevation of the celebrated “Tondulkar” will generate some slight goodwill if not real electoral dividend. But it will open up a can of worms.
For one thing, the question will arise whether Sachin is a good citizen. Whatever his achievements on the cricket field, he has been handsomely compensated for it with hundreds of millions of dollars in advertisement revenues and generous player contracts. Nobody grudges him these avenues of personal pecuniary gain. But his basic instincts seem to be that of a spoilt and greedy person wanting more, grabbing more, not from the Corporate world which hires him to peddle their wares, which is excusable, but from the State exchequer, which is always under financial duress, in part because less than five percent of the population pays income tax and the rest inventively avoid paying their legitimate dues. It is not known if Sachin pays all the taxes on his vast income that he is supposed to, but recall that some years back he moved heaven and earth to get out of paying customs duty on an imported Ferrari sports car gifted to him. He succeeded in having friends in high places persuade the tax authorities to zero out the tax demand. The same Ferrari he later sold, apparently pocketing the sale price-qua-profit without any qualms. What does that say about Sachin Tendulkar, the man, except that he is a petty tax shirker and far from model citizen. Even if this were the only kink in his record, it would be enough to disqualify him from receiving any consideration, let alone the Bharat Ratna. After all, the least one can expect from a person conferred the country’s highest civilian award is that he is civic-minded enough to adhere to the same rules his fellow-countrymen do.
The other thing Sachin’s Ratna will do is open the door wide for a horde of other sportsmen claimants. Already, the other major sports bodies, not to be out-shone by BCCI, are preparing lists of every Indian hockey player, wrestler, boxer, shooter, sprinter, swimmer, and kabbadi player, living or dead, who ever donned India colours with some distinction, to join Sachin in the pantheon of the nation’s greats, and who is to say they don’t deserve this honour any less than Sachin does? Now notables of the film, light music, and television worlds are stirring, making the case that they consistently provide far more joy and upliftment for the sagging and demoralised masses than do all the sportsmen with their episodic successes put together. Cricket and sports generally are ultimately only entertainment, not rocket science. Spectators spending a day watching Sachin bat perhaps draw as much, if not more, satisfaction from spending three hours in darkened cinema halls seeing Shahrukh Khan sing and dance and over-act. For the nation, this sort of activity while adding to its “soft power” is worth little in substantive terms, and certainly is no criterion for Bharat Ratna which, in theory, at least, goes to the rarest of the rare persons for the same reasons that a Second Lieutenant Arun Khetrapal posthumously wins the coveted Param Vir Chakra for conspicuous gallantry in war, not some run-of-the-mill soldier catching a stray bullet on the battlefield and even less a ketchup colonel. Sportsmen and entertainers do wonderful things and laurels come their way in the form of awards meant for their specialist achievements, such as the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna and the Dadasaheb Phalke award. Sachin has won that, been there, and it may be best to leave him and his ilk from the sports arena, to get on with their lives undisturbed by any brouhaha about whether their public recognition needs further embellishment.
Much of public life in India is already so debased that dragging the Bharat Ratna award down may be considered no big thing but it will amount to an egregious assault on the nation’s good sense and perspective.
[Published in the New Indian Express on Friday, December 30, 2011; available at http://www.newindianexpress.com/columns/article312711.ece