Usurping Mahatma legacy?

Cleanliness as social change cannot be brought about through the language of politics but by realising mutual responsibilities and duties.

The fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Mahatma Gandhi are both from Gujarat is insufficient to explain Modi’s new found love for Gandhi. The troubled relation RSS has had with Gandhi in the past makes it even more intriguing. Modi has, of late, been often asking in his public meetings, including the one he delivered at Madison Square in the United States, that Gandhi has got us freedom from the yoke of British rule, what have we given Gandhi in return? During the high decibel campaign days of general elections, the focus was on late Union home minister Sardar Patel to deride the Nehruvian legacy. 

Interestingly, during the time of governance, Modi has preferred to revert to Gandhi, putting Patel and the project of building a massive statue for the ‘Loh Purush’ (Iron Man) in Gujarat on the backburner. What will Gandhi bring to Modi’s repertoire of political strategies? Is Gandhi and Gandhian philosophy being appropriated from the Congress, or is Gandhian philosophy being emptied of all its substantive meaning and being reduced to a symbol of cleanliness?

At the heart of Gandhian philosophy of bringing about radical social change was the strategy of drawing a separation between the social and the political domains. In other words, social change needs to be necessarily brought about independent of political mobilisation that often involves the language of antagonism, interests, and conflict. As part of the anti-colonial struggle, Gandhi reserved the political mobilisation, marked by mass mobilisation and non-cooperation against the British, while these were interspersed by periods of what was referred to as ‘constructive work’. 

Constructive work included issues such as cleanliness, fight against untouchability, among others. Here, the change was sought not through mass mobilisation and non-cooperation but by mutual cooperation and understanding in the social domain. Therefore, Gandhi offered the ideas of trusteeship to address economic inequalities, idea of `change of heart` theory to bring about changes in the caste hierarchy and taking up programmes to clean public toilets in Dalit (then Harijan) colonies in order to de-stigmatise the profession of scavenging and also dignifying manual labour. 

The social was the domain of unity and consensus, while political was the domain of conflict; social was spiritual, while political was more material; social taught the art of cooperation, accommodation, obligation, duty and responsibility, while political was the domain of resistance and assertion (even if it was through ‘passive resistance’). This then was the paradox of the Gandhian strategy of bringing about social change through the ‘politics of accommodation’ which is what Francine Frankle refers to as the ‘Gradual Revolution’. It is this separation between the social and the political, where the social stands above the ‘bickering’ of the everyday politics that Modi has much to gain from in launching the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, and why the ruling elite time and again feel compelled and convenient to invoke Gandhi.


Campaign for cleanliness

The campaign for cleanliness is precisely to bring back this mode of creating the wedge between the social and the political. Cleanliness marks an impending need to bring a ‘social’ change in making Indian towns and cities clean. This cannot be brought about, as the campaign would have us believe, through the language of politics and political mobilisation, but together by realising mutual responsibilities and duties. 

Further, cleaning cannot be the responsibility of the state alone but needs voluntary participation of the citizens, no point blaming the state and government for ‘everything’ without realising one’s own role in it. In doing this, Modi seeks to turn the gaze unto ones own society and community, rather than focusing and expecting ‘everything’ from the government. In laying the blame on the government, one could be projected as being irresponsible, because Gandhi had said ‘be the change that you want to see in the world’. If we have our limitations, then government for sure will also have its own limitations and compulsions. This needs empathy, and not criticism, in order to understand if things are not being delivered, as promised. 

Cleaning as a symbol is also important for the caste connotations it carries. Modi began the cleaning process from a Balmiki colony in Delhi, again a classical Gandhian posturing, which not only dignifies the act of sweeping but also serves as a reminder that it is not the responsibility of karamcharis alone to keep the public spaces clean.  

Gandhi was the genius of symbolism during the anti-colonial struggle. He realised that one way to create a sense of togetherness in a society that was deeply divided was to create symbols that are relevant in the everyday sense across class and caste. Cleanliness is a similar kind of everyday practice that Modi wishes to flag off as a symbol of a resurgent India, the new India that has arrived on the global map, which can be understood by everyone- ‘125 crore Indians’ - across the board. 

Finally, Modi’s strategy of sending out invitations to personalities from the filmdom, sports and even to politicians like Shashi Tharoor of the Congress is to drive home the point that this is ‘above politics’. The strategy has always been to subsume, supplant and contain the messy terrain of the political with the sanitised consent of the social, but to what effect this time around, we will only know by 2019, not only because it the year of Gandhi’s 150th anniversary by when the clean India campaign has to achieve its target but also it is the year for the next general elections.

(The writer is with the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

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