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Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2008 > March 29, 2008 > Awards like Cookies

Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 15

Awards like Cookies

Saturday 29 March 2008, by Sankar Ray


Like Bollyood movies, political productions out of New Delhi can at times be climax-drenched, albeit unpredictably. One such tediously repetitive episode was around the choice of the 2008 Padma awards, India’s highest state honours. The new and ludicrous aspect was the out-of-etiquette campaign from political quarters. But it must be said that the Left—the Communist Parties in particular—kept consciously insulated from this tamasha.

There is no point in blaming President Pratibha Patil who was virtually at the beck and call of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh or Indian National Congress President Sonia Gandhi. But had it been under the tenure of Dr S. Radhakrishnan, Dr Zakir Hussain or V. V. Giri, , the PM could not be sure that the head of state would ink his or her signature on the dotted line. Take the investiture of Padma Vibhushan, the second-highest civilian award, to External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee along with Edmund Hillary (posthumously, 55 years after he, along with Tenzing Norgay, scaled Mt Everest), industrialists like Ratan Tata, L. N. Mittal, cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, chess champion Viswanathan Anand, playback singer Asha Bhosle and a few others. Among those who got the third highest award, Padma Bhushan, were linguistics pioneer Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, physicist Homi J. Bhabha, Malayali poet Narayana Menon Vallathol.

With no malice towards Mukherjee, did this powerful INC politician contribute anything to the nation so as to make him eminently suitable for any one of the first three categories of Padma awards? As a Union Minister, he is not known to have made any path-breaking innovations unlike a few of his predecessors. He was no freedom fighter unlike Dr B. C. Roy and G. B. Pant, recipients of the top Bharat Ratna awards, not to speak of world famous luminaries in the arena of academics such as S. N. Bose or Amartya Sen and Satyajit Ray—all Bharat Ratna recipients. Mukherjee is more known for helping the late Dhirubhai Ambani, the founder-supremo of Reliance Industries, to rise to the top of India’s ‘monopoly houses’. This was accomplished through widely documented manipulation of import duties and licenses. If it were not for political connections (Mukherjee and a coterie of power-hungry bureaucrats), the Ambanis would have been left far behind the country’s traditional industrial powerhouses, the Tatas, Birlas and Bajajs, which they deserve in exchange. These groups, after all, got their start by helping the Indian National Congress during the freedom movement. Who can forget the Mukherjee-Dhirubai bashing by S. Gurumurthy in Indian Express? The Ambanis, he wrote, “immunised themselves against investigations by the state” and Mukherjee used to be called sarcastically as the Minister of Reliance.

How Mukherjee got along in his political career—although far from shining—having repeatedly failed to win in a single election is well known. But he was elected multiple times to the Rajya Sabha while being a favourite of a section of big business, specially of the crony-capitalist type. But mystery surrounds his several victories to the Upper House of Parliament through cross-votes, cast by some CPI-M and other partners of Left Front Government. Whether money power had to do anything is a wild guess, but it cannot be altogether ruled out. However, another Robert Bruce dawned in the current parliamentary history of India in 2004 when he finally made it to the Lower House, from Jangipur in Murshidabad district, that too outside his residential district, Birbhum , thanks to a junior Congressman, Adhir Chowdhury, but for whom he would have been defeated by a large margin.

IT is sad enough that Dr Singh personally took the initiative to select Pranab Mukherjee for India’s second most-prestigious civilian award. But others have wondered why this decision was made, exactly. Trinamul Congress supremo Mamata Bannerji—albeit a maverick politician to many—was quick to remark that Mukherjee’s choice might have been because of his bonhomie with top leaders of Communist Party of India-Marxist. However, the CPI-M tag for Mukherjee is nothing new. In an article in Business Standard, he disclosed somewhat conceitedly his closeness with the late P. Rammurthy, one of the founder Polit-Bureau members of the CPI-M, just before he was to table his maiden Budget speech as the Union Finance Minister, “P. Rammurthy, a prominent CPI-M leader, was a close friend. The Polit-Bureau member of the party used to stay at 9 Talkatora Road while my address was 7 Talkatora Road. He warned me: ‘You are on very slippery ground.’ I assured him: ‘I would tread carefully.’” His discreet tête-à-tête has never been in sync with his never-failing-aversion to pro-people politcs.

Governance is certainly an art, but this is no criterion for top national awards. With the choice of Mukherjee, Dr Singh has cast a stigma over his past credentials as an academic. In the process, he has also solidified his new identity, as a politician— narrow-sighted, back-scratching and loyal to his own kind. What is painful, keeping mind the PM’s aptitude, is the omission of Srinivasa S. R. Varadhan from the list of awardees. The youngest-ever recipient of the Abel Prize, regarded as the Nobel Prize of Mathematics. Varadhan is one of the world’s few versatile scholars with path-breaking contributions covering mathematics, statistics and mathematical physics.

Varadhan’s one-time colleague, Dr V. S. Varadarajan, who too did his Ph.D and initial research of outstanding merit at the Indian Statistical Institute, wrote in The Hindu after the announcement from the Oslo-based Abel Prize Committee that Varadhan traversed far beyond Harold Cramer (1937) with “the definitive theory of these large deviations (from normal behaviour) especially in the context of Brownian Motion”. This motion of small particle was first observed by the English Botanist, Robert Brown, defined as “ceaseless but small motion of small particles of matter—pollen, dust—even when the water appears to be absolutely still”. Much later, it was found that this is due to the bombardment of the piece of matter by the molecules of water moving about randomly even though, at the level where we are observing, the molecules and obviously motions thereof.

Even if Varadhan’s attainment is beyond comprehension of economists like Dr Singh, that’s again no excuse. He ought to have been abreast of the significance of Abel Award investiture. Senior scholars of ISI, including over half-a-dozen of internationally recognised ones, were surprised at Varadhan’s omission. “If Amartya Sen could be awarded the topmost or Bharat Ratna Award, Prof Varadhan too deserved it,” a very senior math-stat Professor told me.

Indeed Varadhan’s theory of large deviations opened up a new area in unifying an efficient method to clarify “a rich variety of phenomena arising in complex stochastic systems, in fields as diverse as quantum field theory, statistical physics, population dynamics, econometrics and finance, and traffic engineering. It has also greatly expanded our ability to use computers to simulate and analyse the occurrence of rare events.Varadhan has made key contributions in several other areas of probability.” In fact, over the last four decades, the theory of large deviations has become a cornerstone of probability, pure and applied. His research being on the borderline of mathematics and physics, he must be eyed by the Nobel Award Committee in Stockholm for Physics Nobel in the future. He was spotted as a very promising scientist by the legendary scholar in mathematical probability, A. Kolmogorov, who was one of Varadhan’s Ph.D thesis examiners.

Of course, the present ISI Director, Sankar Pal, the first head of India’s prestigious academic institution, mysteriously dilly-dallied in congratulating the alumnus after the announcement made by the Abel award authorities. Incidentally, Mukherjee is present Chairman of the ISI.

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