By washing feet of sanitation workers, Narendra Modi delivers message of inclusivity as well as blow to Opposition's politics

  • The image of a prime minister, seated on a low stool and touching, washing and wiping the feet of sanitation workers seated on chairs above him, is more than mere symbolism

  • It goes a long distance in pointing towards the evil of casteism in Hindu society and tackling it in a manner that is more effective than dictums, advices, lectures or treatises on the subject

  • The washing of feet of sanitation workers — who are mostly Dalits — is a huge political statement just ahead of the elections

  • Modi’s move also left little space for the Opposition to criticise him without appearing to be insensitive and touched the heart of plebeians who flooded social media with approving responses

There's a reason why clichés are called clichés. Underneath the lack of imagination and overuse, they reflect a universal truth. For instance, the truth about the adage — a picture (video clip, actually) is worth a thousand words — was evident all over again as one saw images of the prime minister honouring sanitation workers by washing their feet.

The image is a powerful one in more ways than one. It also provided ample evidence of the fact that Narendra Modi remains a master communicator. This point needs to be expanded a bit before we go into the details of his gesture and its significance.

 By washing feet of sanitation workers, Narendra Modi delivers message of inclusivity as well as blow to Oppositions politics

Prime Minister Narendra Modi washing feet of safai karmacharis at Kumbh Mela. News18

Effective communication includes but is not limited to oratory. It includes but is not limited to winning debates. It includes but is not limited to delivering a riveting public speech, extempore. Had that been the case, any good debater or public speaker could have become a mass leader. Effective communication, especially in politics, is all this and much more. For a politician, it is a way to connect with the last person in the queue and convince the disadvantaged and the downtrodden that they are not forgotten.

In a society that is more feudalistic than democratic, classist than egalitarian and remains rooted still in casteism, sending across a message that is inclusive and universal in nature remains a challenge. It is here that the prime minister struck a chord on Sunday with his gesture of respecting the safai karmcharis (sanitation workers) who had worked tirelessly to keep the Kumbh Mela premises clean.

Five sanitation workers, who had won an award at the Swachh Kumbh Swachh Aabhaar event organised by the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, were felicitated along with boatmen (naviks), firemen and cops for ensuring that a clean Kumbh remains a melting pot of spirituality, culture and commerce.

In a mark of respect to the real “karma yogis” — as Modi hailed the sanitation workers — the prime minister proceeded to wash and wipe the feet of Pyare Lal, Naresh Kumar and Chaubi from Banda, and Hori Lal of Sambhal and Jyoti of Korba in Chattisgarh (three men and two women) who, according to a report in Times of India, were left awestruck.

“We were told that we will be honoured and were made to sit on chairs. We were speechless when we saw the prime minister approaching us. He was very soft-spoken. He then washed and wiped our feet and felicitated us with ‘angavastram’. He also asked us about our problems and the experience of working at Kumbh,” one of the workers was quoted, as saying in the report.

The image of a prime minister, seated on a low stool and touching, washing and wiping the feet of sanitation workers seated on chairs above him, is more than mere symbolism. In a deeply casteist society where sanitation workers represent the most oppressed section and are denied respect and dignity in everyday life, this one image goes a long distance in pointing towards the evil of casteism in Hindu society and tackling it in a manner that is more effective than dictums, advices, lectures or treatises on the subject.

One image hammers home a message of inclusivity that a thousand words cannot, and it does so with disarming simplicity and efficiency. It also serves as a reference point for caste-related debates in places that remain outside the loop of egalitarian media debates. But this is just at one level.

At another level, the image is a boost for the prime minister’s Swachh Bharat campaign involving a human congregation of millions, and Kumbh was an opportunity for the government to show that it can implement the Swachh Bharat idea on a grand scale. The image may also be interpreted as an effort to raise awareness by harnessing the power of media that was sure to highlight it.

During his speech on the occasion outlining the huge effort it took to keep the Kumbh clean, the prime minister pointed out that “over 20,000 dustbins, one lakh toilets... difficult to even imagine how much safai karamcharis have worked”.

He called them “brothers and sisters who were waking up early, sleeping late, all to ensure the cleanliness of the area. They did not want any praise but they were doing their jobs without any fuss".

The Uttar Pradesh government had pulled out all stops to keep the Kumbh a tidy and hygienic spot and it seems from the reactions that it has been largely successful in its efforts.

The mark of respect for sanitation workers, therefore, is also a message that the BJP government in the state has been successful in organising such a massive event with minute attention to detail. After taking a holy dip and washing the feet of the sanitation workers, Modi later said that he has never seen such a clean Ganga. “I’ve never seen a cleaner Ganga previously and it has only been possible because of the Namami Gange project,” he said.

Finally, the washing of feet of sanitation workers — who are mostly Dalits — is a huge political statement just ahead of the elections. The success of the message lies in its ingenuousness. It solidifies Modi’s image as a prime minister who is humble and unpretentious despite immense power at his command. It is a message of humility and it is expected to show that Modi, who has known poverty in the early stages of his life, remains rooted to the ground. The fact that he washed the feet of Dalits will go a long way in refuting the Opposition campaign that the government is anti-Dalit.

Nothing convinces someone more than when one is nudged towards a conclusion based on own inference instead of being asked to subscribe to an idea. The image is also a severe indictment of the snobbery, classism and elitism that afflict the incestuous clique that had cornered power in India. Modi was simultaneously washing the feet of the poor and the oppressed and mocking at the elitism that marks the corridors of power.

These are powerful political statements that may resonate with the electorate. Modi’s move also left little space for the Opposition to criticise him without appearing to be insensitive and touched the heart of plebeians who flooded social media with approving responses.

The act of washing and wiping the feet also carries a deeper symbolism. It denotes the sense of service that Modi had alluded to in his last Lok Sabha speech where he compared Congress' "55 years of satta-bhog (enjoying power)” to his government’s “55 months of ‘seva bhav’.” It reinforces the image of Modi as the ‘pradhan sevak’. Political messaging doesn’t get more efficient than this.

Updated Date: Feb 25, 2019 17:00:20 IST