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Indian governments hand out more Padma Shri awards during election years

By Maria Thomas

On Jan. 25 this year, the Indian government awarded 94 people (pdf) the Padma Shri, the country’s fourth-highest civilian honour. And the upcoming national elections might have had something to do with that number.

An analysis of Padma Shri awards given out—in recognition of “distinguished service” in any field, including the arts, science, social work, and public affairs—from 2000 to 2019 by data journalism portal Factly shows that this number tends to spike in election years.

Since 2000, India has held three national elections, in 2004, 2009, and the last one in 2014 when prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power. The number of Padma Shris given out in each of these election years was 29% higher than the average of the preceding four non-election years, Factly founder Rakesh Dubbudu writes.

Both the BJP and its rival, the Indian National Congress, were each in power for two of the four years analysed by Factly (2004 and 2019, and 2009 and 2014, respectively).

This year, the country is expected to hold its 17th Lok Sabha elections in May.

“I can only think of electoral considerations for increased Padma Shri awards in an election year,” Dubbudu told Quartz in an email. “If it happens only once, it could just be (a) coincidence. But it has happened in almost every election year…” He argues that this could have something to do with the government expressing its care for certain states and their people, culture, and heroes ahead of polls.

In fact, writer Gita Mehta, who was among the awardees this year, turned down the honour, saying its timing might be “misconstrued,” given the approaching general elections. Mehta is the older sister of Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister the state of Odisha.

The Padma awards, which include the Padma Vibhushan (for “exceptional and distinguished service”) and the Padma Bhushan (for “distinguished service of a high order”), besides the Padma Shri, have been given out almost every year since 1954. Past winners include actors such as Aamir Khan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, and Priyanka Chopra; writers such as Ruskin Bond, and sports stars, including badminton player Saina Nehwal.

The awards are open to everyone, regardless of occupation or gender, and are sometimes even given to non-Indians. But the total number is limited to 120 a year. The governments of states and union territories, certain institutes, and past winners are all asked to recommend names the year before, and now even average citizens can send in nominations. For the 2019 awards, the government reportedly received nearly 50,000 applications last year.

However, over the past 20 years, some states have dominated, notably the larger, more politically influential ones, as Factly found.

“States like Delhi and Maharashtra have won disproportionately higher number of awards compared to the rest of the states,” Dubbudu writes. “Out of the close to 1,500 Padma Shri awards given in the last 20 years between 2000 & 2019, Delhi and Maharashtra account for 30% of these awards. Add Tamil Nadu, Kerala, & Karnataka to the list, (and) the percentage of awardees from these five states is close to 50%.”