Sant Singh Chatwal is a hotelier, a rich man with many diverse interests. He was also the subject of a criminal investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for defrauding Indian banks. Two CBI directors, as recent reports suggest, dropped these charges. No prizes for guessing how and why this was done. Chatwal has now been awarded the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian honour.

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

The bestowing of medals, ranks, titles and other ceremonial stuff by states is as old as history itself. In the modern age, however, this sits uneasily with the role of a government. Why? Any government today is expected to be an arbiter of rules and a keeper of civic order. Good governments keep markets regulated (but stay away from interfering in them), secure the property of citizens and, in general, ensure a level playing field among citizens. The giving away of awards, ones that confer prestige, makes governments a participant in this game. This worked well in the age of kings and queens when hierarchy between citizens was considered normal. Not anymore.

When this occurs, dangerous things happen. It gives a government an enormous advantage in setting the “prestige agenda", much like a beauty contest, but without the charm of the latter. It could, hypothetically, work well as long as the quality of the selection process is not compromised. This is wishful thinking. Any democratically elected government is manned by persons of ambition, not saints. Ministers and politicians alike want to give awards to further their agenda, and not national interest. From the controversy over selling of peerages by the Tony Blair government to our shoddy committee-based procedures for all kinds of awards, devaluation is common.

This has a negative effect. The government, instead of ensuring a level playing field, creates a club where some citizens and non-citizens muscle their way in. The process is reminiscent of patronage in a monarchy. In a democracy, it leads to jockeying. There is acute demoralization of citizens. This is the story of our Padma awards.

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