Padma, the lotus, blooms and withers from season to season. The national honour in its name has also followed a similar pattern. In some cases the awardees do the award proud, in others the award does the awardee proud. Which means controversy is like a shadow that cannot be shrugged off. Every year there are critics, because every year someone not worthy of the award finds himself honoured by it.
This year it is not at all surprising that the Bharatiya Janata Party has criticised the government for awarding a Padma, that too a Padma Bhushan, to hotelier, lobbyist, New York socialite and page-3 personality Sant Singh Chatwal. That Chatwal has been listed in the category 'public affairs' suggests that he may have played some role in lobbying with his political friends in the United States on behalf of India. This is routinely done by various businessmen and busybodies, but most of them do so for pecuniary benefit. Mr Chatwal may have also received his due rewards, as a hotelier. So, why an icing on the cake like a Padma award?
Every year one such judgemental mistake by the so-called selection committee and powers that be not only hurts the prestige of the many deserving awardees, but also helps highlight the highly arbitrary and feudal process of selection. The BJP too is guilty of devaluing the Padma awards with its whimsical and partisan choices when in office.
Going beyond the issue of political prejudice and personal whim, there are other larger issues that Padma awards raise from time to time. Consider just two recent trends, one in the field of medicine and the other in economics. More often than not, doctors in tertiary care, often from the private corporate sector, have been selected for Padmas rather than doctors engaged in primary health care provisioning and in public health. More economists living abroad, or based in New Delhi, have been selected for Padma awards than those working in India on issues of direct concern to most Indians.
Finally, even though the selection process has now been made more transparent, with non-government selectors involved, the politicisation of the process is obvious and manifest. Nothing else would explain the United Progressive Alliance government's refusal thus far to bestow a Bharat Ratna on such Opposition party leaders like former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and West Bengal leader Jyoti Basu, even when lesser leaders like MG Ramachandran and C Subramaniam have been so honoured.
Part of the problem with the Padma awards is that there are just too many. Instead of doling out 130 awards, may be the time has come to restrict it to no more than 30 -- five Padma Vibhushans, 10 Padma Bhushans and 15 Padma Shris. This would elevate the awards, even if it intensifies the lobbying, and reduce the scope of some gatecrashers getting in!