Benchmarking the Honours List

The outstanding quality of the recipients enhances the value of the national honours and the prestige of awardees. To wantonly attribute them as an instrument of political patronage to all and sundry is to devalue and undermine its standing

For many years now the annual national honours list is a bemusing conundrum for people. It very often seems quite baffling and bewildering. In the United Kingdom and India, the civilian honours are attributed for ‘exceptional and distinguished service’ as a result of a well established and structured process of selection. The operative words ‘exceptional’ and ‘distinguished service’ provide unequivocal benchmarks which must be adhered to and validated by the judicious choices made and the quality and standing of those selected for the annual honours list. After all, the object of the honours list is to single out and honour outstanding performance and service of the highest order by individuals in any field.

It is therefore legitimate for people to want to understand the rationale underpinning the choice of awardees every year and be apprised of the rules, criteria used and process adopted to arrive at the annual national honours list. This is the more so as the Mauritian National Awards Act is a scant three page document which does not say much about these key elements of procedure which basically confer standing and prestige to the national awards. In essence, the Act stipulates that a National Awards Committee shall make recommendations to the Prime Minister on the conferment of National Awards and that these awards are conferred by the President acting on the advice of the Prime Minister.

Not the best

The upshot is that the rationale of the honours list seems unfathomable. Instead of rewarding singular merit and outstanding achievement of the deserving unsung heroes of the country, there is a disquieting feeling that the honours list exercise is a cocktail of cronyism, communal arbitrage and a balancing act to humour lobbies and government members jockeying for the highest honours, with some deserving awardees tucked in between.

 Basically awards must primarily be attributed on a bottom-up hierarchical approach privileging the first echelons of the awards pyramid in line with degrees of exceptional achievement and distinguished service. Above all, the key principles should be to benchmark the highest honours of the country to the loftiest standards of exceptional and distinguished service, limit their attribution and confer them only for really exceptional and distinguished service to the singularly outstanding and deserving.

Such an important national exercise where the best among the nation are identified and chosen to be awardees of the honours list for their outstanding contribution and exceptional service to the country has to be a transparent process. It cannot be shrouded in opacity. It must above all be an independent and objective exercise where the honours list and the choices made also draw public consensus and endorsement by the people, the more so as the chosen awardees logically act as role models for the nation.

In the United Kingdom, the process of short listing the individuals making the cut for the annual honours lists is well established and codified. Potential candidates are identified by public and private bodies, government departments or are nominated by members of the public. The UK government website provides clear indications to UK citizens as to how to nominate someone for an honour, online. The instructions inter alia require the sponsor to explain why he is nominating the person. The nominations are reviewed by honours committees made up of government officials and private citizens from diverse fields. Depending on their field of activity, the people selected by the honours committees are submitted either to the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs or the Secretary of State for Defence for vetting before they make recommendations for appropriate honours to be awarded to the Sovereign (presently the Queen) for final approval. This exercise is carried out twice a year on the occasion of the New Year and the Queen’s official birthday in June.

The British honours awards recognize merit in terms of achievement and service. They are

graded into different categories to distinguish different degrees of achievement or service, in accordance with established criteria. For example Knight/Dame is awarded to persons having a major and long standing contribution in any activity, usually at national level with the caveat that this contribution must also be acknowledged by people working in the nominee’s field as inspirational and significant.

Transparent criteria and process

This rigorous and well codified honours system as well as the high benchmarks and criteria used in the selection process have conferred tremendous prestige to each one of the classes of honours attributed. This is the more so as the honours, decorations and medals awarded every year total only some 2,700. In June 1965, in the wake of their rising fame the Beatles Fab Four were awarded a highly valued MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) at the time. All those who have been awarded British honours are therefore highly regarded in society. As the British have one of the oldest honours system, there are some well defined conventions. For example, a senior bureaucrat receiving a gong means it’s time for him to go. However, despite a transparent process, there have often been criticisms of some awardees on the honours lists.

In India, the national civilian honours are also awarded for ‘exceptional and distinguished service’ in accordance with a well established process. These civilian awards are in order of importance, the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award of India, the Padma Vibhushan, the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Shri. The process of nomination for the different categories of civilian awards are codified in statutes, rules, well defined criteria and regulations. Every year, recommendations for the various civilian awards are submitted during the 1 May to 15 September period to the Padma Awards Committee constituted by the Prime Minister of India. Recommendations are received from all the states and union territories, the Government Ministries, the previous Bharat Ratna and Padma Vibhushan recipients, other named parties and private individuals. The Committee then submits its recommendations to the Prime Minister and the President of India for their final approval.

 The process of selection of potential awardees is quite rigorous. It looks for lifetime achievement as well as an element of public service in the achievements of the person to be selected. The award is also given for ‘special services’ and not merely for long service. It should not be merely excellence in a particular field, but the criteria has to be excellence plus. Persons selected for the awards are finally subjected to verification by the investigating agencies of the Government with a view to ensuring that their character and antecedents are above board.

The proof of any honours system is in the calibre, standing and exceptional service to the nation of the personalities chosen for the various awards over time. It should be flagged that India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna has been awarded only to a select 45 exceptional personalities, including 12 awarded posthumously since its inception 63 years ago in 1954. The number of annual Bharat Ratna awards is restricted to a maximum of three in a particular year. Bharat Ratna is awarded in recognition of exceptional service and performance of the highest order in any field. Any person without distinction of race, occupation, position or sex is eligible for this award

Only the best

The recipients of the Bharat Ratna speak for themselves. They represent a broad cross-section of the best in India. Among the prestigious list of 45 outstanding personalities awarded to date, are Prime Ministers such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi or Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Presidents of India such as Rajendra Parsad, Sarvapalli Radhakrishan or Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, Nobel Prize winners Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman (Physics), Amartya Sen (Economics), musicians Pandit Ravi Shankar or Ustad Bismillah Khan, renowned filmmaker Satyajit Ray, the father of the Indian Constitution, Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedakar, Archarya Vinoba Bhave, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, JRD Tata, the frontier ‘Gandhi’ Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, CN Rao, the head of the team of ISRO (the Indian Space Research Organization) scientists behind India’s maiden September 2014 Mars mission Mangalyaan, singer Lata Mangeshkar and cricketer Sachin Tendulkar.

What is noteworthy is that the process is so rigorous and the benchmarks of exceptional achievement and distinguished service are so high that not all Prime Ministers or Presidents of India are recipients of the highest civilian Award, the Bharat Ratna. Only 6 out of the 15 Prime Ministers and 5 out of the 13 Presidents of India have been conferred the Bharat Ratna. In contrast, the Mauritius National Awards Act decrees that the two highest awards of the country are conferred by virtue of office to the President (GCSK) and to the Vice-President (GOSK) on their assumption of office or during their term of office.

The two term and first non-Congress Party Prime Minister of India (1998-2004), Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s economic reforms, pro-business and free market policies, modernization of public and industrial infrastructure and promotion of a high-tech and IT industry reinvigorated India’s economic transformation and expansion. He also took various bold initiatives to arrive at a full scale peace accord with Pakistan. He was also a Parliamentarian for over four decades and was elected for a record nine times to the Lok Sabha and twice to the Rajya Sabha (Upper House). He was also a powerful orator, a man of the masses with strong political convictions as well as being a writer and a critically acclaimed poet. Despite this exceptional sum of achievements and outstanding service to the country in various fields and having a very versatile personality, he was only awarded the Bharat Ratna in December 2014 ten years after holding office by the President, exceptionally at his home, when he was 90.

Similarly, as of 2017, the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian award, has been bestowed on only 300 awardees, including twelve posthumously and to 19 non-citizen recipients. As of 2017, the Padma Bhushan has been attributed to 1231 individuals, including 19 posthumous and to 92 non-citizen recipients.

By benchmarking the choice of awardees of the national honours to such lofty standards and on exceptional individuals with an outstanding sum of service and achievement of the highest order, a country maintains the high standing of its honours as well as its select recipients. In essence, the outstanding quality of the recipients enhances the value of the national honours and the prestige of awardees. To wantonly attribute them as an instrument of political patronage to all and sundry is to devalue and undermine its standing. This is not just logic but also a simple principle of common sense.

The highest benchmarks of exceptional achievement and outstanding service, well spelled out criteria, a bottom-up approach in respect of the attribution of civilian honours as well as a codified and transparent process of selection are essential steps to urgently bridge the widening gap with the very best honours systems in the world.

 “My poetry is a declaration of war, not an exordium to defeat. It is not the defeated soldier’s drumbeat of despair, but the fighting warrior’s will to win. It is not the dispirited voice of dejection but the stirring shout of victory’.”

— Atal Bihari Vajpayee

Mrinal Roy

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