New Delhi: Former President Pranab Mukherjee was nominated for the nation's highest civilian award, Bharat Ratna, by the Modi government on Friday. This was revealed by a press communique from the Rashtrapati Bhawan ahead of the Republic Day celebrations on Saturday. Legendary musician Bhupen Hazarika and social activist Nanaji Deshmukh will also be conferred the prestigious award. 

Mukherjee was the President of India from 2012 to 2017 and has been one of the tallest leaders of the Congress. He had held important portfolios in the Indira Gandhi, PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh governments, like defence, external affairs and finance, and was considered a frontrunner for the Prime Minister's post in 2004 when Sonia Gandhi had to withdraw following protests over her foreign origin. However, Manmohan pipped him in the race to become the Prime Minister. Mukherjee was the nation's youngest finance minister in 1982 at the age of 47.  

The 83-year-old Mukherjee joins an elite club of Presidents to get the Bharat Ratna, along with Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Rajendra Prasad, Zakir Hussain and VV Giri. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Mukherjee is an outstanding statesman of present times who has served the nation selflessly and tirelessly for decades, leaving a strong imprint on the nation's growth trajectory.

"His (Mukherjee) wisdom and intellect have few parallels. Delighted that he has been conferred the Bharat Ratna," Modi tweeted.

Notwithstanding Mukherjee's body of work and him being a deserving candidate for the nation's highest civilian award, it also has profound political implications. Interestingly, the choice was made with the general elections just a couple of months away.

Mukherjee, who had been a Man Friday for the Congress, had been ignored and sidelined by the party on numerous occasions. Not only was he denied Prime Ministership by Sonia Gandhi, he was sidelined by her husband Rajiv Gandhi, who expelled Mukherjee from the mainstream after Indira Gandhi's death. Mukherjee went on to form the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress in Bengal after that. The RSC merged with the Congress in 1989 after a compromise with Rajiv.

By conferring the Bharat Ratna on Mukherjee, the Modi government has shown it cares for achievement irrespective of party affiliations, while the Congress has always failed to acknowledge a worthy leader. It shows Modi as the upholder of merit above ideology. The Congress now can't even criticise the move without blackening its face. 

The move will also build goodwill in Bengal ahead of the general elections, and emphasises the fact that for the Congress, dynasty has always taken precedence over dedication to the nation's cause. 

Last year, Mukherjee had drawn flak from certain quarters for attending an Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) function in Nagpur.

Mukherjee tweeted his "gratitude to the people of India" after being nominated for the award. 

Deshmukh and Hazarika have been conferred the Bharat Ratna posthumously.

Referring to Deshmukh, Modi said his stellar contribution towards rural development showed the way for a new paradigm of empowering those living in our villages.

"He (Deshmukh) personifies humility, compassion and service to the downtrodden. He is a Bharat Ratna in the truest sense!," he tweeted.

Praising Hazarika, Modi said his songs and music are admired by people across generations.

"From them radiates the message of justice, harmony and brotherhood.

"He (Hazarika) popularised India's musical traditions globally. Happy that the Bharat Ratna has been conferred on Bhupen Da," the Prime Minister tweeted.

Deshmukh was associated with RSS since 1928 till his death in Satna, Madhya Pradesh, in 2010 at the age of 94 and was known for starting the chain of RSS-inspired schools throughout India. He was one of the founder members of Bharatiya Jan Sangh which later evolved as Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP).

Deshmukh was considered to be one of the architects of the Jai Prakash Narain movement against Emergency in 1974 and among the key persons in the formation of Janata Party government in 1977.

Born in 1926, Hazarika was a playback singer, lyricist, musician, singer, poet and filmmaker from Assam.

A recipient of Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1987), Padmashri (1977), Padmabhushan (2001) and Padma Vibhushan (2012-posthumously), Hazarika was also awarded with Dada Saheb Phalke Award in 1992.

Hazarika did his Ph.D from Columbia University in 1952. He died in 2011.

The cultural icon also had a brush with politics and had unsuccessfully contested the Guwahati Lok Sabha seat on a BJP ticket in 2004. He was an independent MLA in Assam during 1967-72.

Hazarika gave music in Bollywood movies Rudaali, Darmiyaan, Gaja Gamini, Daman and many Assamese hits, including the award-winning film Sameli Memsaab.

The Bharat Ratna was instituted in 1954 and is conferred "in recognition of exceptional service/performance of the highest order", without discrimination on the lines of race, occupation, position or gender. It was originally limited to achievements in the fields of arts, literature, science and public services, but in 2011 its ambit was expanded to include "any field of human endeavour". The winners get a Sanad (certificate) signed by the President and a peepal-leaf–shaped medallion. The award carries no monetary grant, but awardees rank seventh in the Indian order of precedence (protocol list in which functionaries, dignitaries and officials are listed according to their rank and office in the Government of India).

The recommendations for the Bharat Ratna is made to the President by the Prime Minister, and a maximum of three nominees can be conferred the award in a year. 

The Bharat Ratna will be awarded after a gap of four years. Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the founder of Banaras Hindu University and freedom fighter Madan Mohan Malviya were given the coveted award in 2015.  

This year, four Padma Vibhushan, 14 Padma Bhushan and 94 Padma Shri awards will be given. The list of awardees includes Teejan Bai, Anilkumar Manibhai Naik, Kuldip Nair, Bachendri Pal, Gautam Gambhir and others. 

With PTI inputs