Time yet for Modi to be termed revolutionary; India should take Netanyahu's comment with a pinch of salt

"You are a revolutionary leader and you are revolutionising India. You are catapulting this magnificent state into the future," Israel’s Benyamin Netanyahu said to Prime Minister Narendra Modi this week.

What could he possibly mean? My dictionary defines revolution as "involving or causing a complete or dramatic change". Usually, this change that a revolutionary seeks is a sort of insurrection against the established order, particularly the state. Since Netanyahu is also calling India magnificent (it would be fascinating to know why he thinks so), it's safe to assume that he’s not referring to Modi’s attempts to overthrow that order. So, what could he possibly be reaching for? I don’t really know and don’t want to speculate. For a moment, let us set aside the fact that Netanyahu is here to sell arms to a customer susceptible to flattery.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi receives his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu on his arrival at Air Force station Palam in New Delhi on Sunday.  PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu. PTI

It is very true that in one way, Modi is seeking to bring about a revolutionary change in the established order. But what is this change? I would say it is reform, but not in the way the word 'revolutionary' is generally used.

Let me illustrate this by looking at one of Modi’s signature initiatives: Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Readers will remember how it was launched the prime minister taking a broom and cleaning public spaces, and encouraging others to do the same and tweet about it.

His website explained the purpose of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan: "A clean India would be the best tribute India could pay to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150 birth anniversary in 2019... While leading the mass movement for cleanliness, the prime minister exhorted people to fulfill Mahatma Gandhi’s dream of a clean and hygienic India. Shri Narendra Modi himself initiated the cleanliness drive at Mandir Marg Police Station. Picking up the broom to clean the dirt, making Swachh Bharat Abhiyan a mass movement across the nation, the prime minister said people should neither litter nor let others litter. He gave the mantra of 'Na gandagi karenge, na karne denge’.”

In the introductory note, Modi uses the words clean, cleanliness, litter and littering 21 times. The words 'toilet' and 'sanitation' appear once in the line that says that Modi "has simultaneously addressed the health problems that roughly half of the Indians families have to deal with due to lack of proper toilets in their homes".

This is almost an afterthought, perhaps because it was an extension of earlier programmes, and therefore, uninteresting to Modi.

Littering is an eyesore and at the most an aesthetic irritant. It is not a national crisis like sanitation is (38 percent of our children are stunted at age two, giving them no chance of a fulfilling intellectual and physical life). But Modi’s focus and his messaging was on littering because what he was reaching for was a change in the individual Indian citizen's character, which he saw as needing a behavioural change. An internal transformation. This sort of reformation is usually done by spiritual and religious leaders. It is not in the domain of popular politics.

One can similarly understand the motivation for eccentric actions like demonetisation through the same instinct of social reform. Indians must be weaned off black money and the way to do this is by forcing behavioural change and taking away their cash. Whether or not this is ultimately effective, whether or not it affects millions negatively, and whether or not people will actually die from this slashing policy stroke, the experts can quibble over all of that later. Modi must act and so he will force (compel) people to do the right thing, or that which he considers right. This is the the reform of the father figure, which in many ways Modi has become, given the nature of his popularity and where it springs from.

Bollywood director Madhur Bhandarkar recently wrote a piece (When a prime minister turned social reformer) referring to the same aspects. He wrote: "There are several examples which show how our society is undergoing a major transformation. Initiatives like taking yoga to the masses, banning the use of red beacons to end VIP culture, special schemes for divyangs and sensitising people to their needs, ending the formality of getting forms/certificates attested by gazetted officers, exhorting people to prepare their own manure through composting — these may look like small initiatives but their impact is massive."

Whether this is what the prime minister of India should concentrate on is not something I want to look at here. The point is that this societal change is what he is drawn to. Sometimes he recognises that he may have approached the issue wrongly or hastily. Today, the Swachh Bharat websites, including one for urban centres, list toilet and sanitation numbers front and centre while there is little, if anything, about littering.

In his reply to Netanyahu’s praise, Modi said, "I have a reputation for being impatient to get results and so do you.” We should expect that his attempts to reform us will continue.


Updated Date: Jan 21, 2018 12:42 PM

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