Shiv Visvanathan is an academic best known for his contributions to developing the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS). He is currently Professor at OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat
The BJP government is an aspirational regime in a hurry to achieve and to be recognised for its achievements as a result. It easily invites itself to a ritual of psychoanalysis. As a regime, despite its majoritarian successes, it suffers from envy, in fact, a large variety of envies.
It suffers from being out of power, out of history for decades. Its envy extends to the fact that its own leadership, despite the recent inflation, cannot quite match the stature of a Gandhi, Patel, Nehru or Azad. This envy has made it rewrite history and even appropriate names and projects which belonged to the Congress.
One particularly acute example of this is the attitude to Gandhi. For a party associated with the assassination of Gandhi, the BJP, in its search for legitimacy seeks Gandhian approval. It treats Gandhi as a brand name that it is desperate to buy into. Only its media dons do not realise that Gandhi is not a brand but a way of life.
No Short Cut
The Gandhian way of life cannot be mimicked or appropriated. Any effort to do so becomes a slapstick exercise, an act of mimicry which is not quite convincing. One has to realise that Modi’s Gandhism is not authentic. It is Machiavellian. It seeks to manipulate, but Modi’s cunning with all its media effects is not convincing. This is caught in Modi’s attempt to enter history by becoming a part of the KVIC calendar, playing a double to Gandhi. The effort was not only farcical and petty but a disaster. It shows that Modi’s cunning is not even a trickster’s cunning. It lacks mythical power. Worse, it fails to understand the moral aura of Gandhi. If Modi’s policy programmes are to experiment with truth, then Modi must understand the demands of an experiment and the power of truth. Any project he undertakes should seek to understand the bridge between the self and the world. One is not merely tinkering with lifestyles in a cosmetic sense but linking lifestyles, livelihoods, lifeworlds in a creative way. An experiment in the Gandhian sense is an ethical act of intellectual risk which is simultaneously an act of political reconstruction. A change in one’s self becomes a trigger for a deeper change in society. Such a reform cannot be cosmetic but demands transformation, both of self and society. One cannot rip off pages from a World Bank handbook and pretend to be a Gandhian. One gets caught in the tokenism of indicators.
Gandhi Vs Skits
The Gandhian project of truth has no notion of cunning, of either the cunning of history or that of Machiavellian politics. It seeks openness, transparency and morality beyond the topical. RSS’ envy seeks to imitate Gandhi and produces a disastrous act of mimicry. It brings neither the change in mentality nor a change of the heart. Sadly, one sees this most deeply in a project which is deeply associated with Modi- The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. This essay is not a drainage inspector’s report on the Abhiyan. One is aware of Gandhi’s caution about the likes of Katherine Mayo. It is more an attempt to understand mentalities and mindsets beyond the current notions of change. Change to be change in modern times has to begin as a spectacle. A spectacle is an act performed for public consumption. It is a performance, and many acts of governance today are more symbolic performances than substantive cases of reform. In fact, reading the reports, one senses the skit-like nature of Modi’s governmentality. Modi enacts changes before a phalanx of cameras, attempting to sweep the courtyard of a police station in a Dalit colony. The lines that follow the act are almost exhibitionist, claiming a clean India is a Gandhian India. Modi empties out the social imagination of the Gandhian act. Yet one cannot see this as tokenism. The scale of the project is immense. It is as if gigantism, whether in building a statue of Patel or inaugurating a cleanliness project, is a compulsive need. It is almost as if one aims not for change but a place in the Guinness book of records. It is this transformation of Gandhi into Guinness that marks the irony of social change in India. Every anniversary becomes an invitation to turn a great moment of history from a great mnemonic to a forgettable farce. Using a Gandhian model of change and evaluating change, one divides the grid of evaluation into four overlapping assessments. Firstly, accounting, then accountability, to be followed by responsibility and finally trusteeship. Accounting deals with finance, with the integrity of money invested. Accountability asks whether the money was invested in the right direction. Responsibility adds a moral, ecological, a holistic dimension to reform. Trusteeship personalises responsibility. One goes beyond a utilitarian calculus and even seeks to protect the marginal and the defeated. One must ask how the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan project survives the Gandhian grid.
Let us face it: cleanliness seems an almost utopian project, and the dream of a toilet in every home seems almost millennial and miraculous. The 2011 census is almost blatant about the fact that 53 per cent of the 246.7 million households lack a toilet in the premises. Open defecation is almost a national exercise, a public spectacle in its sheer everydayness. Modi has to be congratulated for recognising the importance and the challenge of the problem. As a policy priority, such a domestic issue is strategic, more strategic than any space mission. While the strategic choice of the project illustrates his sense of priority, the tactical infolding of the project, despite media publicity, is abysmal. The project is projected as a combination of a religious revival and a rocket launch. It smells more of a public policy project. The moral sheen loses out to the idea becoming part of the dismal science of public policy. One misses a sense of holism, of complexity in the tactical nature of the project, where numbers attempt to capture the magic of social change. An engineering project degenerates to a clerical recording of numbers and a sense of social behaviour is treated as an act of plumbing. The voraciousness of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan publicity cannot hide the desiccated nature of social change.
Bezwada Wilson, the Magsaysay awardee, put it pithily and pragmatically. “Swachh Bharat could start anywhere, but it ends with a septic tank.” As long as it says nothing about manual scavenging, it says little about change and even less about justice and inequality. As he added in an interview with Vidya Subrahmanyam: “Just picking up the broom and making a show of cleaning will not alter the fact that it will be our lot to clean the toilets. It will be our people who will choke to death in septic tanks.” One creates an aura of change while the Dalit remains transfixed in his old position. The new cleanliness mission does not alter the position of the Dalits. Wilson’s critique is not a knee jerk reaction. What he is suggesting is that Swachh Bharat Abhiyan needs a hearing aid, that Modi in his ham-handed dictation is telling Dalits what is good for them. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan lacks the dialogicity of a Gandhian project. The Dalit is the object of analysis. A side play, not the agent or subject of change. Modi missed a double opportunity of reaching into the Gandhian and Ambedkarite imaginations, of creating change through the power of dialogicity. The scale of Swachh budget dwarfs any human concern for the Safai Karamcharis (manual scavengers). The project remains an irony as eventually Dalits become the butt of the exercise. In fact, in a very obvious way, the Swachh project is an act of social embezzlement. It attempts to appropriate two great social imaginations, the Gandhian and the Ambedkarite, and makes a hash of both. Imagine for a second that Modi, instead of listening to the World Bank or his crony bureaucrats, had appointed Bezwada Wilson as administrator of the project instead of enticing him with a token Padma award. Here is a man who understands the sociology of manual scavengers and can link suffering and protest to change. Wilson would have tried to break the mentality of the upper caste, middle class India that Dalits are doomed to collecting garbage and cleaning toilets. Two, he would make the project challenge the inequality embedded in society and emphasise that even in Swachh Andolan, the state has distanced itself from its constitutional role. When a Dalit revolts against cleaning carcasses, the government makes the ‘gaurakshak’ (cow vigilantes responsible for scores of lynching) an iconic figure. Thirdly, Wilson would have linked Swachh Abhiyan to the smart city project, another giant cosmetic exercise which has no sense of the city as a sensorium of the inequality of smells and excreta. Instead of discovering Dalit imaginations which can revolutionise urban thinking, the BJP’s catechism is fixated on the old dictum that Dalits are created to clean excreta. Swachh Abhiya n excludes the Dalit from its reformist imagination. In a tactical sense, Modi in attempting to borrow from the Dalit and Gandhian imaginations borrows superficially the symbols and histories while being illiterate about sociology. The construction of toilets becomes an act of conspicuous consumption, where people still defecate around it or break it because it is not functional. Sadly, critiques of the Modi era focus too much on his sense of nation-state and religion. While valid, they blind us to Modi’s sense of technology and social change. This regime all too often sees change as a spectacle. In fact, if one were to see the regime’s proclaimed achievements as a Republic Day parade of artefacts where the rocket launch follows the nuclear reactor which yields to the septic tank, one realises Modi’s sense of social change moves between the ideological and the technocratic.
There is little sense of everyday injustice. In Gandhian terms, Modi’s tactic is a limited one and embraces neither Swadesi nor Swaraj. It has no sense of the locality and local inequality and it has no feeling for the planetary in terms of climate change and its impact on the margins and their livelihoods. The ironies and the paradoxes of the social change are lost on this regime. One now needs a dream of alternatives which burrows into the future, which caters to the tribal and Dalit imaginations and is sufficiently pluralistic to go beyond the arid majoritarianism. The septic tank becomes a metaphor for a regime which is flushed with pride. One desperately needs Dalit sensibilities to humanise the imagination of the regime.