The Bharat Ratna was instituted on 2 January 1954 through an official notification published in the Gazette of India.
Now the general process to award the Bharat Ratna is that the Prime Minister recommends certain names to the President, who then accepts these nominations and confers the award. This is possibly where the claim originated of both Nehru and Indira Gandhi having nominated themselves for Bharat Ratna.
However, in an article ,independent scholar Sharik Laliwala notes that the nomination is not a set practice, but more a convention, and does not find any mention in the official 1954 notification. Laliwala also notes that the nomination process does not find any mention in the subsequent 1955 notification, which only makes provisions for the Bharat Ratna to be awarded posthumously.
So who and why was Nehru awarded the Bharat Ratna?
Following Nehru’s sojourn from the Soviet Union in July 1955, where he had successfully established India as an international player in context of the ongoing Cold War, then President Rajendra Prasad held a banquet dinner in his honour, where the latter announced that he would be conferring the Bharat Ratna upon Nehru.
In fact, referring to a The Times of India report dated 16 July 1955, Laliwala writes that President Prasad had called Nehru ‘a great architect of peace in our time’.
And who took the decision to confer the Bharat Ratna on Nehru? Well, President Prasad, of course.
Speaking to The Quint, senior journalist Rasheed Kidwai says,
“In Nehru’s case, it was President Prasad, also his adversary, who went on record to say ‘this is my decision, I am doing it.’ So there are no two ways about it.”
Similarly, the 1955 The Times of India report too mentions how the President’s suo-motu decision was kept a ‘closely-guarded secret’.
The report also states that the President went on to confess that “he had acted unconstitutionally as he had decided to confer the honour “without any recommendation or advice from my Prime Minister” or the Cabinet.”
Thus, on 7 September 1955, Nehru was conferred the Bharat Ratna along with philosopher Bhagwan Das and civil engineer M Visvesvaraya.
And what about Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi, and her tryst with the Bharat Ratna?
Indira Gandhi too was conferred the Bharat Ratna in 1971, during her tenure as Prime Minister, much like her father. She was given the award for steering India to victory in the 14-day-long war with Pakistan over East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. In an article for ABP News, Kidwai notes that then President VV Giri “took full responsibility for conferring the honour on Indira.”
Notably, both Nehru and Indira returned the favour to their respective Presidents upon the latters’ retirement.