Something that the UPA government got exactly right
Politics and Play - Ramachandra Guha
Last week, the great pioneering environmentalist, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, was given the Gandhi peace prize, awarded annually by the government of India. I should perhaps have said technically awarded annually; since in the 10 years the United Progressive Alliance has been in power, the government has chosen just two Gandhi peace prize winners. In 2005, the committee’s choice fell on the South African theologian and activist, Desmond Tutu; now, shortly before a general election the UPA will surely and deservedly lose, they have chosen Chandi Prasad Bhatt.
The idea of a Gandhi peace prize was first mooted in 1994, the year of the Mahatma’s 125th birth anniversary. P.V. Narasimha Rao was then prime minister. Rao was a very learned man; and one with a decidedly ambiguous relationship to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. He had, through the 1980s, been extremely deferential to Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, but after unexpectedly becoming prime minister in 1991, he chose to mark out a distinct legacy of his own. Hence the push to liberalize the economy, and hence also the institution of the Gandhi peace prize.
That Narasimha Rao sincerely admired Mahatma Gandhi is not in question. Yet, in setting up an award in his name, he may also have been dealing a subtle snub to the memory of Indira Gandhi. For one of Rajiv Gandhi’s first acts as prime minister was to set up an award named after his mother, which his government claimed would become as prestigious as the Nobel Peace Prize. The Indira Gandhi prize for peace, disarmament and development was first awarded in 1986 to the New York-based Parliamentarians for Global Action. Later awardees included the Russian politician, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Norwegian stateswoman, Gro Harlem Brundtland, and the Namibian freedom-fighter, Sam Nujoma.
In 1991, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by Tamil terrorists from Sri Lanka. Later in the year he was posthumously awarded the Indira Gandhi prize. This, on Narasimha Rao’s part, was an acknowledgment of the brutal nature of Rajiv’s death, and of his own past obligations to the First Family. Three years later, by the time of the Mahatma’s 125th birth anniversary, Rao had made himself quite independent of his former patrons in thought and in action. One manifestation of this growing independence was the institution of the Mahatma Gandhi peace prize. This carried a cash award of Rs 1 crore, whereas the Indira Gandhi prize was worth a mere 25 lakh. The discrepancy was surely not accidental; someone (most probably Narasimha Rao himself) was saying to someone else (most probably Sonia Gandhi) that the Mahatma was a much greater Indian than Indira Gandhi.