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An idiot-proof and swachh guide to nationalism

Civic virtue seldom comes naturally to human beings. It needs constant, relentless reminding and nowhere more than in India, which is still struggling to create citizens out of its people. The word ‘civic’ comes from ancient Greece and is related to ‘city’ and ‘civility’. A ‘citizen’ lived in a city and a ‘civilized’ person was expected to show concern for his fellow citizens. In this kindly act ‘civilization’ was born. Those without civic virtue were called idiots in Greece, which is, indeed, the origin of the word ‘idiot’.

Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is India’s most ambitious programme to teach civic virtue to its citizens. Snatching the jhadoo from Arvind Kejriwal’s uneasy hands and Mahatma Gandhi from Congress’ anxious embrace, Narendra Modi has launched what is billed as the biggest drive in India’s history to clean the nation. He hopes to succeed in this modernizing project where the Mahatma and previous governments failed partly because of technology. In his mind, universal cleanliness is on par with universal Wi-Fi. Vikas is not only about growth rates, he says, but also about improving the quality of peoples’ lives — and clean spaces help to do that.

Frustrated by the lack of market reforms, liberals are realizing that Modi is a pragmatic modernizer, not a liberal reformer like Margaret Thatcher. He wants to transform India by changing attitudes and improving the functioning of the state — through better execution and efficient delivery of services. Without worrying about the colour of the cat (as long as it catches mice), he will reform pragmatically like Deng.

He is following Singapore’s modernizing Lee Kuan Yew, who proved that nations could be built upon an ethic of cleanliness. If India is to remain clean after the hype is over, Modi too will have to institute litter laws and deterrent fines. Cleanliness will also require relentless and persistent investments in sanitation and public health, and it will be money well spent.

Modi is lucky when it comes to vikas. While he has been circling the globe, inflation at home has been falling steadily, growth has begun to recover mildly, the trade deficit is declining, forex reserves are rising, the rupee is holding up, and thanks to the drop in oil prices and better returns expected from PSU disinvestments in a bullish stock market, it looks as though he will achieve his ambitious fiscal deficit target.

Hence, India’s credit rating has inched up, and it is now time for the RBI to cut interest rates. The RSS never fails to remind us that Indians ought to have more national pride. Modi is, however, turning the tables on the RSS by teaching that civic pride is more important. It is, in fact, a stronger, more durable foundation for nationalism. Indeed, a civic-minded citizenry is considerate of its neighbours no matter of which caste or creed. It will not tolerate campaigns like “love jihad“ which rightly lost the BJP eight out of 11 seats in Uttar Pradesh in the recent byelections. A divide is growing between the ideas of Modi and the RSS — similar to the one that grew between Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the RSS — and my bet is that the PM will prevail.

Modi is unlikely to stop tutoring us on cleaning India. By launching his campaign in Delhi’s Valmiki Colony, he realizes that India will have to negotiate the formidable reality of caste and the truth about who cleans India and who doesn’t. But smart cities will be his allies —Delhi’s Metro has shown that clean surroundings can help to create opportunities for rubbing shoulders with fellow citizens, and build empathy and respect for them. If he wants us to clean India every day for the rest of our lives, he ought to say this in his next speech: My fellow citizens, if only we would extend the circle of our concern by only one metre beyond the door or the gate of our home; if instead of throwing dirt over that alien one metre, we would absent-mindedly sweep it clean; and if all Indians did that, India would turn clean. This is not a pipe dream — in some cities abroad, citizens actually wash the footpath outside their home daily. A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first metre.

Gurcharan Das, October 31st 2014

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