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keerthik sasidharan

Cleansing India

Cleansing India

Every so many days, Prime Minister Modi reminds us, either via Twitter or through his public engagements, about his government’s flagship civic works program ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan’, the Clean India Campaign.  To this end, he has often communicated the (unaudited) achievements of his government and the urgency of the issue.  Last week, occasioned by the100th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi led Champaran Satyagraha, Modi argued that there was now an imminent need for a ‘swachhagraha’, by which he presumably meant a commitment to cleanliness as a way of being.  Much as ‘truth’ in satyagraha is not reducible to a simple act of fact verification but is an outcome of private strivings,  ’cleanliness’ in any idea of swachhagraha is arguably not an one-off activity.  Civic cleanliness is an emergent characteristic that a society arrives at by internalizing a set of actions, duties, and processes till the collective memory of the nation can imagine things in no other way.

Much as the idea of radical truth telling was a totalizing pre-condition for Gandhi without which he could see no way of being,  in Modi’s political vocabulary, cleanliness occupies a similar analytical and emotional perch.  It is a private action, a public policy, and an intellectual framework that allows him to draw out causal relationships between India’s ills — from lack of toilets for women to the extraordinary pollution of our rivers —  and India’s future.  His thesis is that if we can get cleanliness right, much else will follow.  A nation, per this view, can’t be modern and powerful unless it is clean.   

This isn’t a new idea in of itself.  From time to time, countries have had this urge to cleanse themselves.  Before Modi, Lee Kuan Yew took to the streets in the 1960s with a broom to spur the citizens of the newly founded Singapore into action.  In France, a national zeal for epurations or purifications — including washing away the moral pollution of some who collaborated with the Nazis — took hold after World War II.   Brothels were shut, soap and detergents entered homes, newly founded women’s magazines now exalted clean underwear as much as patriotism.  Cleanliness moved from being a moral virtue to a functional attribute of being modern.  An elaborate infrastructure of cleanliness — physical and cultural —  was produced thanks to, as Roland Barthes describes, “a great hunger for cleanliness”.

However, in Modi’s India, unlike de Gaulle’s France, there is no public spur like WW2 to galvanize an entire country into action.  Neither is India a micro state like Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore with the abilities to enforce a penalty based regime.  Instead, as many have recognized, among India’s great challenges is translating a inchoate recognition that civic cleanliness matters into a program of collective action.  Any and all change can only come if there is a citizens’ movement.  

To spur this movement into life, Modi seems to have reposed his faith in celebrities to awaken popular consciousness and a top-down state machinery to fulfill targets.  Yet, there is a natural pessimism that is borne out of the recognition that most government projects that rely on repetition of non-technical actions as a critical component for its success are heavily biased towards failure.  This maybe because of an careerist bureaucracy who live off perpetually run sanitation projects, misdiagnosis of the problem in the first place (building toilets doesn’t translate to usage), historical neglect (sanitation never figured meaningfully in priorities until the Sixth Five Year Plan (1980-1985)), anemic adoption (1% annual growth in sanitation during the 1990s!), shifting targets of government programs (schools, households, communities, or Panchayati Raj Institutions), failing to think of accountability in terms of end-user behavior, the gargantuan scale of industrial polluters who are also party loyalists and so on — the reasons are too many.   Even despite the claimed success of the cash awards program (Nirmal Gram Puraskar) to Panchayats that are 100% open defecation free or number of toilets ostensibly built under Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, it is not hard to think that in absence of an independent audit such numbers are putty in the hands of bureaucrats in search of self-advancement. 

To make his case stronger, Modi has also set aside his complicated ideological relationship and even coopted the greatest performance artist of political symbolism: Mahatma Gandhi.  But the art and artifice of Gandhi’s life escapes easy mimicry or glib reductions.  Actions that became an inseparable part of Gandhi’s being, like spinning a charkha, became the physical manifestation of his personal opposition to the British Empire and his idea of living truth.  This much emulated ‘small’ act of resistance was eventually imbued with private meanings by millions who granted his call to action an imaginative potency.  Every time Modi picks up a broom to highlight the importance of cleanliness and to subvert Indian prejudices about those who clean our houses, toilets, and public spaces, he too seeks to extract royalties from the power of symbolism.  He is betting on his actions inspiring a mass movement.  

Notwithstanding the easy charge of tokenism aside, which his ineffectual political opponents hurl at him, what however hobbles Modi’s efforts is his addiction to make a spectacle out of his ostensible selflessness.  Rarely does he seem to wonder how does the Prime Minister (or any celebrity) cleaning a street corner for an hour or two transform from public theater into something meaningful?  If Gandhi’s life has any lesson, it is that symbolism can only be transformative if it is sustained, if people believe that symbolic action, away from the glare of the camera, means something in-of-itself.   Until the day comes when Modi’s, or any celebrity’s, picking up a broom becomes commonplace, an event sans media significance, we’ll continue to mistake symbolism for service.  The revolution from below that Modi rightly seeks to inspire with borrowed neologisms like swachhagraha will die under the frenzy of retweets and ‘likes’, while India will remain wedded to yet another government-sponsored, subsidy driven, supply determined sanitation project.   


A version of this article was published in The Hindu on April 23rd 2017. 

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