Awards go up in public esteem if given on merit, and decline if extraneous considerations prevail.
Of all the Padma awardees this year the most controversial is the choice of veteran actor Anupam Kher. That his wife is a BJP MP can be ignored. What cannot be forgotten and forgiven is his doublespeak. In 2010 he said, “Awards in our country have become a mockery of our system. There is no authenticity left in any one of them. Be it films, national or now Padma.” After getting a Republic Day award this year, he tweeted: “Happy, Humbled & Honoured to share that I have been awarded The PADMA BHUSHAN by the Govt. of India. Greatest news of my life:) #JaiHind” (sic).
Anupam Kher is a hugely talented actor who fully deserves the award. But the timing is wrong. Getting awarded soon after leading a pro-BJP drive to counter the political fallout of the nationwide debate on intolerance and the return of awards by distinguished citizens from various fields reduces the significance of the honour. The impression has gained ground that he has been rewarded for the political services he has rendered rather than for his acting talent. The Modi government could have escaped the charge of politicisation of awards had it also chosen one of its critics in the intolerance debate – be it Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan or Karan Johar instead of say Madhur Bhandarkar, the maker of “Calendar Girls”. A once secular, highly professional film industry stands divided today – those who see India as a tolerant nation under Modi and those who do not. The “Incredible India” campaign has been taken away from Aamir Khan and handed over to Amitabh Bachchan and Priyanka Chopra.
Whether newspaper owners, journalists, retired bureaucrats and CAGs should accept awards is debatable. There are some who do not feel any sense of guilt in being partial towards a politician or a party, or flaunting their political connections and lobbying for favours, while others – and their number is shrinking – maintain a distance from politicians and governments in a bid to remain independent and objective.