28th JANUARY 2019

A) For honour’s sake: on the Bharat Ratna awards

In An Ideal World, The Bharat Ratna Awards Would Be Free From Political Considerations

It is in the nature of our polity to use any opportunity possible for political signalling, and the Bharat Ratna, the nation’s highest civilian honour, has not been spared from this propensity. Over the years, ideological considerations have influenced the choices. While the Narendra Modi government’s decision to confer the Bharat Ratna on the late Assamese singer Bhupen Hazarika (who contested on the BJP ticket in the 2004 Lok Sabha election) and the late Nanaji Deshmukh (a Bharatiya Jan Sangh leader and social activist) evoked little surprise, the choice of former President Pranab Mukherjee seemed to have caught everyone off guard and triggered feveredspeculation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi described him as “an outstanding statesman of our times”. While Mr. Mukherjee’s seniority and contribution to the polity are not in doubt, the fact that he agreed to speak at an RSS event last year to the bemused disapproval of the Congress party was held out as a reason. And more unsympathetically, could the award have been a part of the BJP’s strategy of embracing old Congress leaders such as Vallabhbhai Patel to highlight that its real opposition is to the Nehru-Gandhi family? It is no secret that Mr. Mukherjee’s political ambitions were thwarted at one point by his inability to break the hold of dynastic politics in the Congress.

Whether or not someone deserves a particular honour is not an easy question to resolve. Idolised leaders are integral to the imagination of a community, and arguably, for nation-building. Such secular rites of veneration set an ideal that the community celebrates and strivesfor. This is of course different from the pursuit of partisan political interests. Unfortunately, competitive politicshas overshadowed the majesty of the Bharat Ratna. The honour to M.G. Ramachandran in 1988 was widely seen as a cynical political move ahead of an election in Tamil Nadu. A promise to confer the Bharat Ratna to Madan Mohan Malaviya was made by Mr. Modi during the 2014 campaign, and he fulfilled it soon after coming to power. Claims and counterclaims for the honour have become part of assertions of power by various groups. The emergence of new political elites is often accompanied by a clamour for greater acceptance for their leaders in the national roll of honour. A democratic, plural community must resolve these demands with respect and sensitivity. But this must not lead to a devaluation of the honour. Transparency is not easy to achieve, and fairness is difficult to establish, given the contradictory demands of representation and majesty. But a good place to start is to discontinue posthumous awards. It is a slippery slope of arbitrariness. Idols and ideals unite diversities in a community, and Bharat Ratnas must be selected with this in mind. On this count at least, the Modi government’s list will be contested.

B) Shutdown surrender

Donald Trump is forced to retreat by accepting a temporary end to the shutdown

The partial shutdown of the U.S. government was the first major showdown between President Donald Trump and the Democrats after the latter took control of the House of Representatives in the mid-term Congressional elections in November 2018. Mr. Trump had threatened to keep the government shut down indefinitely unless Congress authorised $5.7 billion to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, one of his key campaign promises. He finally agreed to reopen the federal departments, on the 35th day, without getting anything in return. The Democrats, on their part, had insisted from the beginning that they first wanted the shutdown to end before discussing border security. The President had stormed out of a meeting with the Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that was called to discuss the shutdown. But now he has agreed to hold talks, after reopening the government. There were a host of factors that influenced the turnaround. If the Trump team had hoped a prolonged government shutdown would break the Democratic Party’s rank and file, it didn’t happen. Instead, the longest government shutdown in America’s history created fissures within Congressional Republicans. The FBI Director, a Trump appointee, was among the senior functionaries who decried the governmental dysfunction. The President’sapproval ratings fell and polls suggested that most Americans held him responsible for the crisis.

For Speaker Pelosi, who stuck to her demand despite the administration’s posturing, it was a victory of sorts in the game of chicken played between Mr. Trump and her. But the key issue remains unaddressed. For now, the spending bills will allow the government to run till February 15. President Trump has said he would not back off from his demand for funding for the wall, which he believes is necessary to stop illegal immigration and cut crime — a claim that iscontested widely as border-crossing apprehensions hit a 46-year low in 2017. But Mr. Trump has threatened to shut down the government again in February unless the Democrats agree to fund the wall, or he would declare a national emergency using his executive powers and redirect public funds to build the barrier. Neither option will be easy. The shutdown tactic has failed. Pushing the U.S. into another government closure would be catastrophic for millions of Americans. The national emergency idea lacks support even among the Republicans. Mr. Trump will be better off if he realises thatholdingthe government to ransom to extract compromises from Congress is not a sound tactic for a President. He could adopt a less confrontational approach towards Democrats and hold talks with them with an open mind on immigration and border security. He may just get a deal.