Indian politicians are not usually inclined to be self-deprecating. In his address to an ecstatic crowd of overseas Indians at Madison Square Garden last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi struck an unfamiliar note by suggesting that as a humble Indian who had risen from the ranks he was disinclined to posit a grand vision. He would, he assured the ranks of his supporters, concentrate on small things to make a difference to the lives of ordinary Indians.
Modi was being needlessly modest. Although he has steadfastly shied away from either articulating a grand strategic doctrine — much as the Think Tanks would want him to do — or even a political ideology that can be marketed as ‘Moditva’, the schemes he has undertaken are by all standards extraordinarily bold and ambitious. Judged from a contemporary perspective, the programme of financial inclusion to ensure a bank account for every adult Indian seems lofty, but doable. So too is the programme to dot India with smart cities with modern civic amenities — particularly clean drinking water and sanitation. Determined political will and honest implementation could even make the polluted Ganga a cleaner river. However, by far the most ambitious of all his schemes, is the Swachh Bharat or Clean India initiative that he intends as a grateful nation’s enduring tribute to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150th birth anniversary in October 2019.
That Modi has prioritized a massive cleaning up of India may seem unusual on many counts. First, not since pre-Independence public figures and religious social reformers focussed on trying to modify the Indian personality has India witnessed anything like this. However, the great stalwarts of the 19th and early-20th centuries never had to run the gauntlet of electoral politics. Their contributions were assessed in terms of the impact on local communities and regions. Modi’s scope is national and he will be judged on an all-India basis. All it requires is for the ever-cynical media to make a mockery of the Clean India initiative by unendingly focussing on what hasn’t been done for the whole exercise to be overwhelmed by cynicism.
The maverick Aam Aadmi Party that uses the media as a force multiplier has, for example, decided that the best way to expose the spuriousness of Clean India campaign is to flood the media with tell-tale photographs of accumulated garbage and overflowing toilets. This would have been a welcome initiative if it were backed up by a citizen-cum-government drive to clean up. Tragically, the principle behind the exposés is to demonstrate that in India nothing changes.
The challenge posed by creeping cynicism isn’t idle. Personal cleanliness may well be an Indian obsession but, as many have observed over the years, the average citizen of Bharat lacks the commitment to ensure a wholesome public space. Poverty, over-crowding and the lack of amenities may well be the reasons why, as the young V.S. Naipaul was exasperated enough to observe in one of his early works, that Indians “defecate everywhere”. At that time, Naipaul was denounced as “anti-Indian” — an assessment that was drastically revised in subsequent years as he embraced the political assertion of Hindu India as a reawakening of a subject nation — but his observation won’t seriously be contested by 21st-century Indians.
The sheer enormity of the Clean India project Modi has undertaken is daunting for it necessitates a mindset. A newly elected Lok Sabha MP from Jharkhand narrated to me the magnitude of the challenge. Having identified nearly all the schools in his sprawling constituency that needed toilets, he was confronted with a problem that extended beyond running-water supply and routine upkeep. To maintain a clean, odour-free environment, he was told by local teachers, the authorities would also have to construct boundary walls — an expensive proposition. Without this separation of space, the children would be inclined to use adjoining fields as toilets. “This is what they do at home,” the teachers informed him.
Maybe it will take a daily dose of brainwashing and some imaginative propaganda on the electronic media, not to mention special toilet grants, before the importance of clean public spaces is acknowledged as a worthwhile national endeavour — perhaps even more important than securing the elusive permanent berth on the United Nations security council. It is reassuring that the prime minister is not losing any opportunity to spread the word. Apart from roping in celebrities, particularly of the Bollywood and cricketing kind, he seems intent on adding the Clean India agenda to all manner of public events. Thus, this year’s Children’s Day — the 125th birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru — will have cleanliness as its main theme. Modi has also been modestly successful in incorporating Clean India to the corporate social responsibility programmes that are now mandated by law.
Yet, these are small beginnings. One of the biggest problems any programme launched by a prime minister or, for that matter, any holder of an official post, faces is the perception that it is a government initiative. Anything with an official tag attached to it is confronted by public apathy and the belief that the entire onus is on the government to ensure its success. This sense of citizen detachment is often reinforced by the unfailing ability of babudom to turn good ideas into displays of tokenism, verging on the tamasha. Over the past few days, for example, I have noticed the low-circulation papers, hungry for advertisements and even the proverbial ‘paid’ news, carrying innumerable photographs of officers of government departments and public sector units sweeping the streets in front of their offices. The general idea, it seemed to me, was for the officers to get themselves photographed and their names publicized in print. The clippings can then be framed in the offices and re-printed in glossy brochures that, hopefully, will be seen by senior officers or, better still, ministers.
Tokenism of the sarkari variety is, of course, a big hurdle to popular participation. To this can be added the perverse tendency of the political system to convert good ideas into partisan talking points. The firm censure of the Lok Sabha MP, Shashi Tharoor, by the Kerala unit of the Congress for endorsing Modi’s Clean India programme wasn’t an isolated act of churlishness. It was meant to send out a clear message to Congress activists that the party doesn’t view Swachh Bharat as a national initiative that transcends party lines. The Congress, it would appear, would rather Modi is shown up as a failure than India imbibing the virtues of public hygiene and becoming muck-free. Indeed, the spirit of contrived partisanship may well increase with the prime minister praising the supportive stand taken by the chief minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi.
Finally, there is the curious non-participation of the voluntary sector in this initiative. True, some big-ticket philanthropists such as Bill Gates have publicly praised aspects of Modi’s mission to clean India. However, it is remarkable that a country that boasts of having a huge NGO industry, often with generous international funding, has seen the ‘jholawalas’ stay out of the campaign. Part of the reason could lie in the profound activists’ distaste for Modi and everything he stands for. In the main, however, the aloofness of NGOs can be explained by the vested interest this sector has developed in the maintenance of poverty and India’s image as a squalid country that needs dollops of welfare, not an injection of productive investment.
Modi, it would seem, doesn’t have to merely confront filth and muck. An equally big challenge is to motivate enough Indians to believe that change is indeed possible — and in their lifetime.
The Telegraph, October 10, 2014