Days ago, the Modi government had awarded Bharat Ratnas Karpoori Thakur And L. K. Advani – honoring both the legacy of early social justice, especially for EBCs, and the Hindutva legacy of the BJP illustrated by the latter.
The honor for Charan Singh, Rao and Swaminathan is also filled with political messages at various levels in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, continuing a Modi-era trend when it comes to state awards.
At five, one more than the four announced in 1999, this is the maximum number of Bharat Ratnas announced in a year.
Charan Singh was a prominent farmer leader with a strong base among the Jats of western UP. By presenting him with the highest civilian award, the Modi government has reached out to farmers in northern India in general and the Jat community in western UP, Rajasthan and Haryana in particular. Significantly, the Jats of Haryana and Western UP were at the forefront of the years-long agitation against the three farm laws enacted on the borders of the national capital in 2021, eventually forcing Prime Minister Narendra Modi to announce their withdrawal.
The award comes at a time of mounting speculation about the Rashtriya Lok Dal, founded by Charan Singh’s son Ajit Singh and now led by his grandson. Jayant Choudhury, breaking away from the opposition INDIA bloc to join the NDA. “Dil jeet liya (You have won my heart),” Jayant posted shortly after announcing the award.
Earlier, after the Bharat Ratna was named after Karpoori Thakur, who had pioneered the EBC sanctuary in Bihar, JD(U) split from INDIA and joined the NDA.
But the symbolism of the award to Charan Singh does not stop there. The farmer leader spent 38 years in the Congress before splitting the party in UP after it failed to secure a majority in the 1967 state Assembly elections, leaving with 16 MLAs. He subsequently became chief minister with the support of the Jana Sangh – the forerunner of the BJP – along with the Socialists, the Communists and the Swatantra Party.
Although that reign proved short-lived, it did not stop Charan Singh. He returned as CM in 1970 for another short term with the support of Congress.
After some more experiments with other parties, in 1977, after the Emergency, Charan Singh again found himself in the opposite ranks of the Congress and joined the Janata Party, which was formed by the merger of several opposition parties, including the Jana Sangh. He was deputy prime minister in the Janata government that came to power, in which later BJP stars Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani were also ministers. Once the Janata started to crack over its ideological contradictions, Charan Singh quit.
This time he became Prime Minister for a short time with the support of Indira Gandhi’s Congress.
The Bharat Ratna to Charan Singh is thus a recognition for a leader who opposed the Congress and was a fellow traveler of the Jana Sangh for several years. In his post on the Bharat Ratna, Modi said Charan Singh’s “deep commitment to our farmer brothers and sisters and his commitment to democracy during the Emergency are an inspiration to the entire country”.
The reach for farmers is further illustrated by the allocation to MS Swaminathan. It was the Swaminathan Committee that recommended in 2006 that the MSP should be one and a half times the cost of production incurred by a farmer. He is also credited as the architect of the Green Revolution in the 1960s, which made India self-reliant in food grain production. “Dr Swaminathan’s visionary leadership has not only transformed Indian agriculture but also ensured the country’s food security and prosperity,” the Prime Minister said.
However, the main choice for the Bharat Ratna was Friday former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao, the second lifelong Congress leader to be honored with this award by the Modi government after Pranab Mukherjee. Significantly, both leaders had a rocky relationship with the Gandhi family, and the Modi government’s honor for Rao comes at a time when the Prime Minister has stepped up his attacks on the Congress, especially the Gandhis. It fits the BJP narrative that Congress leaders who do not have the blessings of the Gandhi family do not get too far into the party and are not pushed to the sidelines.
For the BJP, honoring Rao also serves more purposes, as he is seen as the liberator of the Indian economy, as well as the prime minister who, according to many, ‘allowed’ the demolition of the Babri Masjid to take place in 1992. While Congress failed to recognize Rao Long after his term as Prime Minister ended, Bharat Ratna serves the BJP’s claim that Congress has mismanaged the economy while tacitly honoring a leader who ultimately gave a huge boost to the Ram Temple movement, which recently came full circle with the inauguration of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya.
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What the BJP is also said to have considered is the upcoming Andhra Pradesh Assembly elections, which will be held simultaneously with the Lok Sabha. Rao, who belonged to Telangana region, remains the pride of Andhra as the only leader of the united state to ever become Prime Minister. He was also the CM of united Andhra.
The BJP, which is looking to boost its Lok Sabha numbers in the South, is currently in talks with both the ruling YSRCP and the main opposition TDP in Andhra, underscoring its own importance to the two parties.
The others who have been awarded Bharat Ratna since Modi came to power in 2014 include educationist, freedom fighter and one-time Congress president Madan Mohan Malviya; Vajpayee; Assamese singer and musician Bhupen Hazarika; and RSS leader Nanaji Deshmukh.
(with inputs from Deeptiman Tiwary)