By sweeping dirt on the pathway to Balmiki Sadan, a historic temple complex inside a spartan Delhi colony of sanitation workers, Narendra Modi thrust Mahatma Gandhi and one of his fading ideals back into public imagination in a rapidly modernising India.
The 150-year-old Balmiki Sadan temple is a vantage point for Modi to mount his first big campaign against social ills since becoming prime minister. Balmiki Sadan was constructed, like such temples elsewhere, by Valmikis -- a neglected Dalit group and erstwhile “untouchables” forbidden from mainstream Hindu religious places.
Gandhi’s birthday is a fitting platform for a mission for a filth-free India, “Swachh Bharat”. In his Independence Day speech, Modi talked of a clean India for Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary on October 2, 2019.
Since taking office, Modi has repeatedly invoked Gandhi, who crusaded against both uncleanliness and discrimination against lower castes considered spiritually and physically unclean for much of India’s history. Cleanliness is more important than independence, Gandhi had once said.
On his first day in office, Modi tweeted a picture of him paying obeisance to a framed photograph of the Mahatma in his office room. He mentioned Gandhi while vowing to clean the Ganges. Just days ago in the US, he roused American-Indians, saying Gandhi was an “NRI like you”.
On Thursday Modi said, citing Gandhi: “Let us take a step to build the India of Bapu’s dreams.” Describing the logo for Swachh Bharat, he said the logo “depicts Bapu as looking at India through his spectacles”. “Bapu’s glasses capture the minutest of things…he is looking at the whole nation.”
“Swachh Bharat” enables Modi to enter Gandhi’s legacy through a pertinent but politically uncontestable issue: clean India.
Gandhi of course stood for many things, such as non-violence, composite culture and, importantly, his prescription for adjustments between Hindus and Muslim so that they live harmoniously.
Modi’s embrace of Gandhi has however sidestepped some problematic aspects of India’s history, such as the well-known repudiation of some equally abiding Gandhian ideas by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Modi’s ideological fountainhead.