Painting the Red Fort saffron

No wonder, on the eve of Independence Day, The New York Times described Modi as ‘a cipher’

Painting the Red Fort saffron
The Roman Emperor Nero decreed, “Give them bread and give them circuses.” All authoritarians since then have combined demagoguery with drama, none so pointedly in India as Narendra Modi with his flamboyant red turban blowing in the wind, his arms flailing, his oratory swirling, and giant screens and other gee-gaws carrying the spectacle far and wide.

But what of the substance? His Independence Day address amounted to no more than old wine in old bottles with new labeling. Much is being made of his invoking toilets from a public platform to a prudish public. What, however, had he to add to the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, successor to the Total Sanitation Programme, announced last year by his predecessor, Dr Manmohan Singh, from exactly the same platform? Nothing. For dealing with sanitation has been a principal preoccupation of our enlightened leaders’ programme ever since Mahatma Gandhi picked up the jhadoo and asked Kasturba in South Africa to clean up her own mess. “Cleanliness”, said Gandhiji, “is next to Godliness”. But he did not proclaim it from the ramparts of the Red Fort. He set a personal example, beginning with himself and his family, without ostentation but inner humility. Indeed, his entire “constructive programme” was built around personal and community hygiene.

We did not have to wait till Modi to be told about the importance of toilets. What we needed to be told was the degree of progress achieved in attaining total sanitation and the hurdles faced by the decades-old Nirmal Gram Abhiyan. Had Modi cared to study the subject instead of merely inventing slogans, as is his wont, he would have found that the problem of constructing public toilets from MPLADS funds, as I was doing when Modi was running around in khaki knickers doing prachar and pravachan, is that it is easy enough to construct public toilets, the problem is to ensure maintenance. When these public toilets are first built, they are celebrated as if they are Taj Mahals. Within a week, they are rendered unusable because there is no proper arrangement for maintenance. And if Modi had the time or inclination to read recent surveys, he would have found that even when toilets are provided in private homes, there is inadequate motivation to regularly use them.

[quote]It wouldn't be Modi if there were to be a practical roadmap[/quote]

Social motivation being the principal challenge, the Gram Sabha is the obvious place for the panches and sarpanches to propagate the importance of sanitation. But to go by Modi’s Independence Day address, he has not even heard of his fellow-Gujarati, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s Panchayat Raj. Obviously. How can an authoritarian be kindly disposed to the devolution and dispersal of power? Not that we had not been warned. Modi’s Gujarat has been among the poorest performers in Panchayat Raj. That is proved again in the absurd proposal for a “Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana” which MPs are to promote through their MPLADS funds. First, how can 700 “sansad adarsh” villages make a difference to the horrendous hurdles faced by 7 lakh villages? Second, and more importantly, why a “Sansad” programme; why not a Panchayat Adarsh Gram Yojana? That would instantly reach every village of India, provided – and this is a big proviso – the villages are effectively empowered under the Constitution through the devolution of the required Functions, Finances and Functionaries. Alas, Modi’s “re-imagined” India does not incorporate the empowerment of the people but the canonization of NaMo.

The same goes for his sententious and ultimately meaningless remarks about preventing rape and the sexual harassment of women by parents subjecting sons and daughters alike to the same restrictions. It would have been a much greater contribution to have heard him sacking Nihal Chand Meghwal from his council of ministers and laying out practical steps (other than hanging sixteen-year-olds) for superior law and order to protect women in public places and stringent, timely judicial action against offenders. But it wouldn’t be Modi if there were to be a practical road-map. He just exhorts but does nothing. Gandhi both exhorted and set a personal example of high ethical rectitude. He said and did. Modi merely alliterates with silly, childish slogans.

[quote]If foreign direct investment in manufacturing in India has been pathetic despite reforms, it is not because the UPA government was deficient in coining ungrammatical slogans[/quote]

The latest in this series of Moditvisms is, “Make in India”. What else is ‘swavlamban’ and ‘swadeshi’ than ‘Make in India’? And if the point Modi were trying to make to foreigners in ungrammatical English was that they should invest in manufacturing, what again is new about the concept? We have been rampantly seducing foreign investors ever since economic reforms began under PV Narasimha Rao and his Finance Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh. Success has largely eluded us although hot money inflows into our stock market, particularly through the notorious Mauritius route, have escalated manifold. If foreign direct investment in manufacturing has been pathetic despite reforms, it is not because the UPA government was deficient in coining ungrammatical slogans but because there are very real constraints – political, social and economic - on freeing up the rules and regulations that govern foreign investment. If Modi had the guts (or the foolishness) to dismantle all these restrictions, he would not have needed empty slogans to woo the foreigner. But because he knows his own saffron brigade will not let him run riot, instead of meaningful policy changes, all the potential foreign investor got from Modi was yet another slogan. No wonder, on the eve of Independence Day, The New York Times described Modi as “a cipher”.

An unseen laborer washes a Mahatma Gandhi statue in Banglaore
An unseen laborer washes a Mahatma Gandhi statue in Banglaore

The cipher proved it once more with yet another slogan – that of calling for a moratorium on communalism for ten years. The question – why only ten years, why not forever? – has been asked by others, so I will desist. What would have been far more telling would have been Modi apologizing for the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat on his watch and publicly pledging to rein in all the Bhagwats, Togadias and Kodnanis with whom Modi surrounds himself and who played such a crucial role in bringing him to 7, Race Course Road. Can he disavow them? Does he wish to disavow them? Is he ready to promise on the eve of the UP polls that every knicker-wallah involved in pre-poll communal violence will be thrown out of the sangh parivar? No. Because if he did, the sangh parivar would first throw him out. Modi is like Lady Macbeth. “Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand”.

Lastly, the Planning Commission. There could be an argument for abolishing the Planning Commission Only Modi did not make it. All we got was the petulance of his attempt to overthrow one of the greatest legacies of the Nehruvian era. Exactly like the iconoclastic Delhi Sultans smashing every idol they could find but being unable to cogently explain such vandalism, to destroy the Planning Commission without spelling out in detail what is to come in its place is like a child wantonly destroying its playthings only because it is such fun to do so.

What we need is a return to adult behaviour from the Red Fort. We need a Jawaharlal Nehru announcing the nation’s fulfilling (“not wholly, nor in full measure”) its “Tryst with Destiny”. We need a Lal Bahadur Shastri proclaiming, “Jai Jawan! Jai Kisan!” We need an Indira Gandhi rallying the nation to liquidating the pogrom in neighbouring East Pakistan. We need a Rajiv Gandhi announcing the Assam accord, carrying forward the Punjab accord, presaging the Mizo accord. We need a Narasimha Rao unfurling the roadmap to a new prosperity. We need the gentle humour of Atal Behari Vajpayee. We need the sober, somber tones of Dr. Manmohan Singh. To expect any of this over the next five years (minus 70 days) is, alas, to ask for the moon.