The Padma awards have never been free of the taint of being associated with political patronage and indiscreet lobbying. Against this backdrop, this year’s are refreshing. To be sure, the awards are political this year, too. But there is no brazen rewarding of the ruling party’s generals. It is hard to recall the last year the Padma list had as few cheerleaders of the ruling party. Instead, many of this year’s recipients are truly worthy, but from states where there are elections coming up soon or in which the ruling party is looking to gain more than a foothold—prominently, Bihar, Karnataka, Kerala, Odisha,Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. The other political underpinning is perhaps one that is desirable. There is a distinct ASEAN tilt to the list. And winners from key ally-nations like Japan and the US figure in it too. The winners are individually worthy—even former UN secretary-general U Thant’s grandson, Thant Myint–U, a distinguished historian and thinker who gets a Padma Shri—but the choice of countries underlines a bold courting of nations that share the same uneasiness about China emerging as a regional and world power despite whatever deep ties of commerce and investment they might have with it. India, if it aspires to be a regional and global counterbalance to China, must woo these countries.
Many of the honorees are exceptional people working at the grass-roots level, whose work must be celebrated. Drs Rani and Abhay Bang from Gadchiroli, Maharashtra, who have helped bring down infant-mortality in one of the poorest districts of India, Subhashini Mistry from Bengal who built a hospital for the poor from her earnings as maid and daily-wage labourer, Lakshmikutty, a tribal woman from Kerala who prepares 500 herbal medicines, and Bhajju Shyam, a Gond artist from Madhya Pradesh, among others in the Padma list, are all exceptional Indians who richly deserve the honour. The Padmas this year are, therefore, their own redemption.