New Delhi: The Modi government has initiated the process to give former President Pranab Mukherjee the Bharat Ratna over two months after it awarded him the country’s highest civilian honour, two senior government officials told ThePrint.
The investiture ceremony is likely to take place in the middle of the Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal, Mukherjee’s home state that votes in all seven phases and where the BJP is expecting to log electoral gains.
With less than two weeks to go before the elections kick off, the government has written to Mukherjee, who was conferred the Bharat Ratna on 25 January, to find out his availability for the investiture ceremony.
Mukherjee had been conferred the award along with singer Bhupen Hazarika (posthumously) and social activist Nanaji Deshmukh. But since announcing it two months ago, the government is yet to hold the investiture ceremony to give away the award.
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), which is responsible for finalising the dates, has already held the investiture ceremony to give the Padma awards. Two ceremonies were held on 11 March and 16 March for 112 awardees.
The Bharat Ratna, being the highest civilian award, is given by the President in a separate ceremony, one of the government officials said.
MHA has sought Mukherjee’s availability
With speculation on the delay in holding the investiture ceremony mounting, the same government official, who did not want to be named, said the MHA has written to the former President seeking a suitable date on which he will be available.
Sources said that S.K. Shahi, joint secretary at the MHA, had on 19 March written to Mukherjee to also share details such as a brief biographic sketch for the citation.
“The information is required for the commemorative brochure on Bharat Ratna awardees that will be released on the day of the investiture ceremony,” the second government official said.
The home ministry has also sought details about the names of persons who would attend the ceremony.
A Rashtrapati Bhawan spokesperson said, “The government initiates the proposal for the date. Rashtrapati Bhavan’s role comes only after that.”
A senior official of the Election Commission of India told ThePrint that the Bharat Ratna or any other civilian award, which have been announced earlier, does not come under the purview of Model Code of Conduct (MCC).
“The MCC mandates that no administrative work can be started when the code of conduct is in force. Bharat Ratna is the highest civilian award of the country and was announced on 25 January,” the official said. “Also, it is given not by a government functionary but the President of India. Also, the awards have already been announced. Giving it away is just a formality.”
The Congressman at RSS headquarters
Mukherjee, who held several ministerial portfolios in the UPA governments of 2004 and 2009 as well as in earlier Congress governments was already the President when the BJP-led NDA government came to power with a decisive mandate in 2014.
He had shared a good equation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his term as President.
Mukherjee, however, drew flak from some of his former colleagues in the Congress after he visited the RSS headquarters in Nagpur last year to address swayamsevaks at an event.
Mukherjee had then called RSS founder K.B. Hedgewar “a great son of Mother India” in the visitors’ book at the RSS headquarters, a comment that was attacked by many Congressmen.