THERE was once a hapless US President, Gerald Ford, who followed Richard Nixon into the White House, of whom it was said that he couldn’t chew gum and walk at the same time. This is what his countrymen said about him. Actually, he was a good man who rarely chewed gum.
If he is not careful, our own hapless Prime Minister may be walking in Ford’s shoes. Manmohan Singh is a fine gentleman but, like Ford, nothing seems to be going right for him. The budget is out of sync, and inflation has got such tight hold on the economy that no matter what he does, prices refuse to go down. He is apparently unable to handle anything without making a mess of it. He and his administration are unable to organise a simple thing like Padma awards without bringing them into disrepute.
First of all, it is not clear why we have Padma awards, or, for that matter, any awards. Awards for gallantry and other military achievements, yes. But why should the government, particularly a government that consists of stupid politicians, sit in judgment over who is a good poet, or a good film-maker, or even a good surgeon, since that is not their job.
Titles are awarded in monarchies, not republics. All the Lords and the knights you see floating about in England do so because they receive the honours from their queen. This has been going on for hundreds of years, when kings and queens were powerful and fought their own battles, with the help of faithful men to serve them. And one way to ensure their trust was to give them titles, and often some land to go with it, so that their loyalty was assured, and also their assistance in future battles.
Thank God there are no kings and queens in India now, so some people fancy themselves as his or her majesties. There is no need for titles in a republic. There are none in America, where they are banned under the Constitution. In fact, if you are a citizen of the US, you cannot accept a title from foreign countries either. In a republic, all citizens are equal, though, in practice, some may be more equal than others, in an Orwellian sort of way.
Even when you succumb to the temptation and create titles, there must be proper ways to administer them. In the past, there were no scandals in awards. Now, there are more scandals than Padmashris.
Take two recent Padma awardees that have become a laughing stock in the country. One man, an actor, has received a Padma though it is obvious he does not deserve it. He does not even look like an actor; he looks like a street urchin without a home. And his private life, which is actually more public than private, is not exactly of the kind one expects of a Padma. In England, until recently, a divorced man or woman was not considered worthy of any award from the queen (or king) until the rules were modified. Laurence Olivier, whose private life was not exactly without blemish, and who was involved with a married woman, who was also an actor, had to wait years before he could call himself Sir Laurence. In India, it seems even cheats can get Padmas, provided he is a big cheat, has donated crores to the ruling party, and is highly recommended by other cheats, most of whom are politicians, here in India or abroad.
One such cheat figures in the list of awardees this year, who should be in prison rather than in Ashoka Hall receiving the award from the President. Firstly, he has done nothing for India, and has operated outside the country for years. Why give a Padma to a man or woman who is not really an Indian? Secondly, there are so many cases of cheating against him that he may find, himself behind bars in the US any time, may be at the time he is wanted in Ashoka Hall. He has apparently cheated banks, tried to jump bail and done all sorts of things crooks do in Bollywood films. How did the government zero in on such a man while there were at least a billion Indians to choose from?
The man is said to be close to a former President of the US, also a notorious but clever character who often used his office in the White House for purposes other than it is meant. The man got out scot-free because such men often go scot-free after they pull a few strings. Our Padma man was apparently highly recommended by this ex-President which is like a command for the denizens of Race Course Road. If you are prepared to award Padmas to certified crooks, say so. Surely, there are thousands of such people in India itself, without your having to search high and low, and zero in from someone from Manhattan.
A government that cannot organise even a hundred Padma awards without making a mess of it, must be either very incompetent or very corrupt, or both. I think it is both. That the present government is incompetent goes without saying. See how it has handled the food situation, out of which friends of ministers have made millions. All over the world, prices have tumbled at a time of the most severe recession in recent years. But in India, they have doubled and some ministers are constantly warning people that they are likely to climb further, a signal to their friends in trade and industry to keep hiking their prices and make money.
But I think that, contrary to popular impression, this administration is more corrupt than it is incompetent. The fiasco in Padma awards is due mainly to the corrupt ways in which most things are handled in this government. I wouldn’t be surprised if money has changed hands in the selection of awardees, particularly those who are unworthy-like the actor and the hotelier in America-but moneyed, and have contacts with touts that frequent Delhi’s corridors of power. After all, a man who runs half a dozen restaurants in New York and counts former Presidents among his patrons, would have no hesitation in parting with a few million dollars to get a coveted Padma, though it may not be as coveted as he thinks it is.
India’s biggest malaise is not poverty but corruption and weak men at the top. There is corruption in every thing -in sugar, in defence equipment purchases, in land acquisition for industry, and now in Padma awards. And what is the Prime Minister doing about it? Nothing. That is Manmohan Singh’s response to everything-nothing. All he seems to be concerned with is whether GDP growth rate will be six or eight per cent, and the rise and fall in Sensex, even if drunkards and pimps are walking away with Padmas.
And yes, abolish the Padmas, if you can’t give them to good men!