In honour of lobbying

Feb.17 : ould be surprised by the widespread criticism of the award of Padma Bhushan to the controversial Non-resident Indian hotelier, Sant Singh Chatwal. It is equally significant that the sole and strident defender of this award is the hotelier himself. Interestingly, the latest salvo he fired in self-defence was during a cruise in the Caribbean on his personal yacht that he reached after flying in his private plane.

This is not at all surprising, of course, in the case of an owner of a chain of restaurants in America and Canada who is also known to have generously funded the US Democratic Party, including the Clintons. What is puzzling, however, is that neither he nor anyone else has contradicted a newspaper report to the effect that in a testimony to American authorities Mr Chatwal had claimed that his income was $6,750 a month of which he paid his elder brother $5,000 a month as rent for living in a New York penthouse.There has also been some agitated comment on a Padma Shri award to an alleged Kashmiri terrorist but this has died down presumably because the individual concerned seems to have surrendered and changed his ways. But strong feelings against the honour done to Mr Chatwal persist and won’t go away any time soon.Remarkably, a newspaper questioned the wisdom of giving a Padma Bhushan to him even before the awards were announced. The powers that be ignored it. Later, it transpired that President Pratibha Patil had expressed exactly the same doubts but the Union home ministry reportedly assured her that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), having investigated the hotelier for fraud for nine years, had finally stated that there was no case against him. The ministry’s repetition of the same argument in public invited the rejoinder that the CBI’s so-called clean chit was the result of two successive directors of the agency having “overruled the findings of their investigators”. In response there has been thundering silence in both South and North Block. When opponents of the Padma award to the hotelier pointed out that there were no fewer than four fresh cases against him in the courts of Kerala in connection with the construction of a luxury hotel at Kochi that was inaugurated by Prime Minister’s principal secretary, the home ministry commented that it was “ascertaining” the facts. How long this process will take is anyone’s guess.I was a member of the media party accompanying the then Prime Minister, Inder Kumar Gujral, on his official visit to New York in 1997. Punjabi residents of the Big Apple naturally organised a banquet in honour of the first Punjabi Prime Minister of this country. When he was told that he was expected to give away prizes to outstanding Punjabi entrepreneurs, of whom Mr Chatwal was one, Mr Gujral refused to go. He relented only when the organisers assured him that the hotelier’s wife, not he, would collect the award. However, when the time came, the hotelier marched to the dais along with his spouse. So infuriated was Mr Gujral that he and his party left the banquet hall without eating. It is against this backdrop that the current unhappy episode has to be viewed.To be sure, the controversy over the award to Mr Chatwal is not the first of its kind nor is it going to be the last. There have been similar occasions in the past. A couple of years ago, for instance, a Punjab industrialist was honoured even while farmers of the state were demonstrating against him for having “grabbed” their agricultural land “in connivance with venal politicians and officials”.To say this is not to insinuate that all the awards given on every Republic Day are dubious. Many of the awardees doubtless deserve the honour done to them. But, sadly, a fairly large number of undeserving and dubious persons also manage to get included in the honours list. Contrary to the rules, they then flaunt the award by making it a prefix to their names. No wonder that over the years the Padma awards have been debased in the public eye. So much so, that after coming to power in 1977, the Janata government suspended these awards. The Supreme Court restored them and simultaneously laid down some guiding principles to govern their distribution. Needless to add that these are honoured more often in the breach than in observance.There are two ways in which this depressing malaise is being nurtured year after year. In the first place, unsurprisingly in the Indian milieu, there is such intense, crude and even obscene lobbying for the awards as to be sickening. The tragedy is that instead of such unworthy award-seekers being automatically disqualified, quite a few of them manage to get what they want. Secondly, those in positions of power and influence, including members of the selection committee that has to be appointed every year under the apex court’s directive, wallow in promoting the cause of their protégés and favourites.The only ray of hope in a largely dark situation is that even in this day there are some who, instead of lobbying for it, refuse the Padma award when offered to them. The highly respected Hindi author Krishna Sobti and the eminent Bengali playwright Badal Sarkar did so this year. Nikhil Chakravartty, one of the most luminous stars of Indian journalism, also declined a Padma Bhushan some years ago, as did the premier security analyst, K. Subrahmanyam. The most noble and uplifting rejection came from Maulana Azad, a towering leader of the freedom movement and independent India’s education minister from 1947 until his death 11 years later. His colleague, home minister Govind Ballabh Pant, had gone to him with the request that he should accept Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award. The reply he got was vintage Maulana: “We cannot attach to our achkans the awards that it is our job to confer on others”. Unfortunately, leaders like Azad are no longer this country’s role models.Under the circumstances, shouldn’t we think again about the desirability of maintaining a system of awards that is fast losing its sheen?

Inder Malhotra

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