Civilian honours and their discontents

Written by YRK Reddy | Updated: Feb 17 2007, 06:16am hrs
An illustrious scientist who was awarded a Padma Shri some years ago is distraught that less accomplished people have been awarded higher honours now. An eminent litterateur and social commentator is piqued that he has been selected for a mere Padma Shri. A great historian has declined a Padma Bhushan twice over. In the end, all those who have received their honours in earlier years are unhappy that they have not been given higher honours, or that their juniors in some sense or the other, are being honoured better. Many are unhappy that the public memory is distressingly shortand the aftermath of the distinction is as depressing as the post-nuptial syndrome. Some are unhappy that sports people are being picked up while they have another track of recognition; many civil servants dont know why their colleagues have suddenly become heroes; public sector honchos wonder why people get such awards for running their own businesses profitably; and the common man cannot figure why some foreigners are being honoured or why sections of the media tally the awards by region or religion. And there is no dearth of sour grapes. The saga continues.

There are also many who have not aspired for any such award and yet could not decline when offered, out of politenessas an eminent doctor friend commented perceptively some years ago, he had to live down the embarrassment quickly. Some are unhappy for being used to add flavour and credibility to an otherwise bland list.

Civilian honors and awards have been controversial in many countries. No wonder that Tony Blair has been questioned by Scotland Yard as part of its investigation into the cash-for-peerage scandal involving, among others, Gulam Noon, the curry king, Chai Patel, the CEO of Priory Clinics, Barry Townsley, a stockbroker, and David Garrard, a property developer.

Soon after World War I, there were serious charges in the UK of corruption that included trading bells, whistles, ribbons, trinkets and titles for huge sums of money. In comparison, there was probably greater transparency when William the Conqueror, auctioned honours publiclynot a bad idea at all. A leaked document a couple of years ago contains the names of those who refused the honoursthe list of almost 300 people since World War II includes renowned authors, writers, and poets who were unhappy with the regimes or considered the honour belated or lower than what they deserved.

In many countries, the selection process has been questionable and often provides enormous scope for lobbying, sponsorship and intermediation of many kinds. This is aggravated in a system that relies on a bureaucracy that promotes private information, political patronage and noise at the right places. Thus, a market evolves for such honours. Such a market is also conscious that for maintaining the threshold reputation, some of the awardees have to be picked on merits that would bring honour to the resta good free ride for the many driven by the reputation of a handful. Sadly, though, it proves a no-win situation for those who have wormed their way into the list via the market mechanism. Such an award worsens public perceptions of fraud. The award, instead of enhancing their reputation among the intelligentsia, confirms what otherwise may have been a mere suspicion. Some years ago, an academic awardee was publicly derided as a Badmashri in the light of his questionable past and political connections.

In comparison, there was probably greater transparency when William the Conqueror, auctioned honours publiclynot a bad idea at all
Fortunately, we do not have celebrities declining them in hordes or police investigations of the British variety. Not yetthough the system may have been testing the patience of Rashtrapathi Bhavan and the PMO over the years. There are fault lines in the process that need to be fixed to fight cynicism. We need a more transparent system. A system in which the public can actively participate and one that can be validated on the basis of openly stated goals. The current system fails any test for robustness of information flow and selection processes that guarantee rational outcomes.

Wait. Outcomes... what outcomes