Nobel Politics and Obama

obamaCertain awards should be non controversial and pass like 100% purity event. Unfortunately the Nobel Prize is getting tucked into trouble after trouble. The recent controversy about the Nobel Peace Prize’s committee’s decision to award the prestigious prize to the US president Barack Obama who doubtlessly the leading contender for the future prize. May be the committee slipped in its announcement. Instead of saying “Would be winner” the erred to declare the winner of Nobel Peace Prize 2009. Even Obama was stunned to hear this unexpected news. It is high time that the Nobel Prize committee rises above abroad and safeguard its sanctity.

Shobana Saxena writes in The Times of India (11 October 2009)

US President Barack Obama has been given — at first shot — something his hero Mahatma Gandhi could not in five attempts. Perhaps, it was too
difficult for the Nobel committee to give the prize to the “half-naked fakir” who shook the very foundations of the western empire. As a nation, Indians have neither forgotten the “insult” nor forgiven the West for this Nobel “politics”.

Winning a Nobel has never been easy. The rules are simple for those competing in the physics, chemistry or economics categories: Do some groundbreaking work on a quiet campus for years and then wait for the call from Stockholm. But to those angling for the peace or literature prizes, merit may not be enough. Factors such as national pride, ideology, and global politics play a role. Awarding the peace prize to former US president Jimmy Carter in 2002, Gunnar Berge, the Nobel chairman, described it as a “kick in the leg” for the then US president George Bush.

Back to Obama. As his name was announced on Friday, the world gasped and many wondered if the award had come “too soon, too fast”. But Thorbjorn Jagland, the Nobel committee’s chairman, said: “We must from time to time go into the realm of realpolitik. It is always a mix of idealism and realpolitik that can change the world.”

Indeed, the awards for peace and literature have always been about real politics. Politicians have been accommodated in the peace category — Teddy Roosevelt, Carter, Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin, Al Gore, etc. Sometimes, politicians dominate the literature category, Winston Churchill being a case in point. In 2005, as Harold Pinter, the British writer known for his virulent opposition to Iraq war, got the award, literary observers wondered if he were chosen solely on the basis of his writings. “There is the view that the Nobel literature prize often goes to someone whose political stance is found to be sympathetic at a given moment,” wrote Alan Jenkins in the Times Literary Supplement, London. “Harold is now a fully paid-up member of the awkward squad — he really likes to get up people’s noses.”

This was not breaking news to China’s communist bosses who have long worked on Project Nobel, their attempt to secure the literature prize for their country. In her book, The Politics of Cultural Capital: China’s Quest for a Nobel Prize in Literature, author Julia Lovell exposed China’s lobbying. “When Gao Xingjian, a dissident Chinese writer, received the Nobel for literature in 2000, China reacted very strangely. For two decades, the country had energetically campaigned for the award, from flying writers to Sweden to funding an anthology of writings by Nobel prizewinners,” says Lovell, explaining how the prize is important for China’s “national pride as well as for its position in the world.”

Closer home, the fight for the Bharat Ratna and Padma awards is even messier. “It’s nothing but lobbying and money. That’s why these awards were discontinued for several years after the Supreme Court observed irregularities,” says an RTI activist who filed a petition some time ago to ascertain the exact process of choosing the Padma awardees.
In response, the Union home ministry was forced to admit that “no specific record of the deliberations of the meeting of the Padma awards committee is maintained. Only the final recommendations of the awards committee are submitted for the approval of the Prime Minister and the President.”

Small wonder these awards have generated more disharmony than spread peace. In 1999, vocalist Pandit Jasraj alleged that sitar maestro Ravi Shankar had approached influential MPs to secure a Bharat Ratna. “The people close to the ruling party are the main beneficiaries of these awards,” says Subhash Agarwal, an RTI activist. National or international, it seems there is no escape from the politics of giving and getting awards. Time to institute a Nobel Prize for Politics?


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