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Guest Times: Is Bharat Ratna demand for Kurien an honour or an insult?

It’s an art we specialise in. Forgetting our heroes while they are alive, and then clamouring for their Bharat Ratna when they’ve departed. The case of V Kurien is no different

An Amul ad in honour of Verghese Kurien

By Rohit Bansal

September 12, 2012

Forgotten and bitter, there were hardly any takers for the nation’s Milkman during his twilight years in Anand. Some say because he was pompous. Well, he wasn’t young at 90, but he was hardly senile! The truth is he wasn’t worth any TRP. That’s probably why he made it to the initial list of “Greatest Indians” on CNN-IBN, but never made it to the Top Ten. Sachin Tendulkar and Atal Bihari Vajpayee (both still to get the Bharat Ratna, by the way) did! There was also risk aversion. Advertising bucks from Kurien’s protégé-turned-enfant-terrible Amrita Patel were part of the blackout calculus.

But all of a sudden, among several others, Rajdeep Sardesai, the chief editor of CNN-INB, has sent out the regulation tweet that Kurien deserved the Bharat Ratna.

Rohit Bansal

Is this anything but a crude attempt to ride on the nation’s nostalgia? We saw it when Field Marshal SHFJ Manekshaw passed away. In a more plebian sort of way, there was hysteria and a flood of crocodile tears when Rajesh Khanna, the forgotten superstar, died. For 48 hours, Khanna’s clips crowded out everything else. Even the funeral was live on the networks. A live-in partner’s claim to his property was P1 news!

My argument against Kurien’s Bharat Ratna is based on three points:

1. A posthumous Bharat Ratna is becoming a force of habit. Out of 41 awarded so far (42, if we include the “posthumous” one to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose in 1992, which the award committee had to withdraw after failing to satisfy the supreme court), 13 were given during the prime ministership of Jawaharlal Nehru.

Not one of them was posthumous: C Rajagopalachari (awardee: 1954, demise: 1972), CV Raman (awardee: 1954, demise: 1970), S Radhakrishnan (awardee: 1954, demise: 1975), Bhagwan Das (awardee: 1955, demise: 1958), Visvessaraya (awardee: 1955, demise: 1962), Nehru himself (1955), Govind Ballabh Pant (awardee: 1957, demise 1961), DK Karve (awardee: 1958, demise: 1962), BC Roy (awardee: 1961, demise: 1962), Purshottam Das Tandon (awardee: 1961, demise: 1962), Rajendra Prasad (awardee: 1962 demise: 1963), ZakirHussain (awardee: 1963, demise: 1969) and PV Kane (awardee: 1963, demise: 1972) got justice while they were alive.

Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad was offered the Bharat Ratna before he died in 1958, but he refused on moral grounds and the investiture was done in 1992: 34 years after his demise. Also, outside the scope of this essay, though not for any reasons of fairness, Nehru forgot at least three giants: Vallabhbhai Patel (recognized only in 1991: 40 years after his demise), Subhash Chandra Bose (detailed above) and BR Ambedkar (recognized in 1990, thirty four years after his demise in 1956).

Remember, Nehru’s was a time when the doyens of the freedom movement were alive. Many like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bhagat Singh hadn’t died a century ago. If he had rolled the clock back forty-fifty years, like his successors were to do, the list of Bharat Ratna would have had several hundred to today lie in oblivion. That was another time and the PM too much of a rationalist to be honouring the dead.

Politicisation picked up soon after. Unwittingly, one might add. Lal Bahadur Shastri got the Bharat Ratna posthumously, in 1966, the amidst a wave of public grief over his unexpected demise during a trip to erstwhile USSR.

Then, Indira Gandhi helped herself to one in 1971, riding on the military victory in Bangladesh (Manekshaw, her chief of army staff, didn’t; he was, in fact, promoted to the five-star general position of Field Marshal for 14 days and then eased out, perhaps on account of trying to hog too much of the credit).

By then Bharat Ratna politics had lost most of its post-Independence innocence. VV Giri got his five-minutes of fame in 1975, five years before his demise, surprising many on what he did to deserve the honour that Patel, Bose and Ambedkar hadn’t. In 1976 came the Bharat Ratna to K Kamraj, a sworn nemesis of the PM, but now safely in heaven! The one to Mother Teresa was non-controversial and happened 17 years before the angel’s demise in 1997.

The first Bharat Ratna in Rajiv Gandhi’s prime ministership was decided with impeccable criteria. Badshah Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan came down to New Delhi to receive it in 1987.

This set up what was to happen next year, a blot to a hoary tradition. The name of Tamil Nadu’s former chief minister MG Ramachandran was etched on the alumni list. The Tamil politics of the PM was MGR’s only qualification, MGR having died a year before. The gloves were off.

Posthumous tokenism engulfed Ambedkar (1990), Patel (1991), Azad (1992) and Netaji (1992), not to miss prime minister PV Narasimha Rao’s gambit to win support in the Congress with a posthumous Bharat Ratna to Rajiv Gandhi himself, and one to Nelson Mandela, the first to someone outside the Indian subcontinent. That year was something. JRD Tata and Satyajit Ray got one too.

In the interim, as if to balance the score card from the tag of Nehru-Gandhi domination, Morarji Desai got his Bharat Ratna in 1991 (demise: 1995), Gulzarilal Nanda in 1997, at a fantastic age of 99, and ArunaAsaf Ali one year after she died. Importantly, Jai Prakash Narain did only in 1999, twenty years after he had died.

In recent decades, with  consensus getting rarer, the politicos have lost a little bit of their brazenness. So, we’ve had singers M S Subbulakshmi (1998), Lata Mangeshkar (2001) and Bhimsen Joshi (2008), musicians Ravi Shankar (1999) and Bismillah Khan (2001), scientists C Chandrasekhar (1998) and APJ Abdul Kalam (1997), and economist Amartya Sen in 1999, but after the world had recognized him with the Nobel Prize.

The only politico who got Bharat Ratna recently is a chief minister from Assam, Gopinath Bordoloi, in 1999, but 49 years after he had died! If this wasn’t tokenism, what is?

Honouring Kurien thus, if he’s deserving of being in this club, should have been done when he was alive. Today, it’s a plain afterthought, hardly of inspirational value to a life of serving `Bharat’, that mass of India that remains submerged in marginal farming, survival still hinging on vagaries of the monsoon, and poor quality of livestock.

2. Kurien has already received a Padma Vibhushan in 1999, preceded by a Padma Shri and a Padma Bhushan. A sudden Bharat Ratna doesn’t have compelling evidence of sterling work post the Padma Vibhushan. Thanks to internal politics with the men and women he created, the fact is that the last 13 years don’t have all that much to show.

An emotional “upgrade” to the Bharat Ratna would also mean a question mark to the claims of other builders of modern India. I merely mention E Sreedharan in mass-urban transportation, Vikram Sarabhai and Satish Dhawan in space, and M S Swaminathan in ushering the green revolution.

It may interest that Homi Bhabha, the father of our nuclear programme, and a favourite of Nehru, didn’t go beyond a Padma Bhushan, the thrid-highest honour, what to speak of the Padma Vibhushan or Bharat Ratna.

3.  A man like Kurien needn’t be remembered via tokenism. His passion and ability was to set up a template for a milk cooperative in a land that depended on the rains, whose cattle was barely average in yields, and whose farmers hardly in the reckoning for their literacy and progressive approach.

Can we, instead of meaningless debates on a Bharat Ratna, do something about bringing his ideas into states that have far better resources than Gujarat, Kurien’s original catchment?

Can the cooperatives rise above being sinecures for the IAS and attract passouts from the Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA), an institution Kurien could build with his bare hands, when his cousin Ravi John Mathai, another builder of modern India, couldn’t give him passouts from the neighbouring Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A)? As Vivek Bhandari, a recent director at IRMA puts it, the man’s genetic imprint straddles across an array of institutions in the development sector, as does his heroic effort to have kept the babus at bay.

Unfortunately, as NDDB struggles for an over-arching role and impact, no state truly benefited from the cooperative movement that Kurien fathered. The loss wasn’t his alone. Can, say, Pradeshik Cooperative Development Federation of UP even invite schoolchildren to its collection floors without putting them off milk forever?

So, the true Bharat Ratna for this great son of India isn’t about a bureaucratic body chaired by cabinet secretary Ajit Seth moving a file. In my book, Kurien already has one.

Bharat Ratna for Kurien is, as I paraphrase the glimpse shared by IRMA alum and my old colleague Andy Mukherjee, lies in the hut of the farmer in Gujarat who keeps a black and white picture of this Syrian Christian, in between idols of Lakshmi and Ganesh. It’s conch is the hooter at 3.30 AM, where the entire village, totally dependent on dairying, wakes up with a smile and gets down to milking!

Bharat Ratna for Kurien lies in the impact his convocation speech at IIM-A had in shaping the life of a child of reform like Sanjeev Bikhchandani. Then in his first year of the PGDM course, Bikchandani recounts: “First he (Kurien) narrated to us some glimpses of his life and the choices he had made. Then, he congratulated the graduating batch on a long career ahead as shampoo salesmen. He suggested that the name of IIM-A be changed to ‘The Indian Institute of Management for Shampoo Salesmen.’ He then exhorted us to do something different with our lives and not just seek personal comfort and careers as employee managers in an MNC. He gave us a glimpse of a higher order goal. I must confess that I still remember his speech and what he said was one more nail in the coffin of my future career as an employee manager in a large company. I quit my corporate job within two years of graduating from IIM-A.”

Bharat Ratna for Kurien lies within each of the hundreds and thousands of “shares” on the social media of the tear in the eye of the Amul Girl, the character he co-created with Sylvestor daCunha.

Kurien needn’t be picked up by a committee that works on lobbying and trade-offs and testimonial letters from ministers (should we be surprised if AK Antony or Narendra Modi join Sardesai’s demand for Kurien now?). From his heavenly abode, he’d rather see Robin Bahadur, the 9-year-old in our household, drink Mother Dairy milk every day, only because his parents Chandra Bahadur and Ganga Maiya, can afford it.

RIP, V Kurien. You are a true Bharat Ratna. Who knows you’ll now be out there building cooperative dairies in the skies.

(The writer is CEO of India Strategy Group, Hammurabi & Solomon Consulting, an HBS alum, and a student of Indian governance)

(This article first appeared on September 10, 2012 in GovernanceNow.com)

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Comments (1)
  • Prof Alok J- 7 years ago

    Dear Rohit, I appreciate your well researched and thoughtful article. To best of my recall, a plot of land at understated value got Dr Kurien into trouble. This could have led to disqualification of him getting it in hand. Kind regards Dr Alok Jain