The Delhi-based elites would most probably snigger at PM Narendra Modi’s first Independence Day speech today from the ramparts of the Red Fort. They’d probably feel ashamed that the leader of an emerging superpower who is acclaimed as the Iron Man, should have plunged headlong to speak about toilets and shit on such a solemn occasion.
My mind goes back to Mahatma Gandhi’s first encounter with the Indian National Congress at the session in Calcutta soon after his return from South Africa, and the problem of shit that he came across on the historic occasion.
“There were only a few latrines, and the recollection of their stink still oppresses me,” Gandhiji later recalled in his Autobiography. He wrote, “I pointed it out to the volunteers. They said pointblank, ‘This is not our work, it is the scavenger’s work.’ I asked for a broom. The man stared at me in wonder. I procured one and cleaned the latrine… Some of the [Congress] delegates did not scruple to use the verandhas outside their rooms for calls of nature at night… No one was ready to undertake the cleaning, and I found no one to share the honour with me of doing it.”
Gandhiji added that if the Congress session had continued longer than it lasted, conditions would have been “quite favourable for the outbreak of an epidemic.”
I wouldn’t be surprised if Modi thumbed his way through Gandhiji last night, in solitude, while collecting his thoughts for today’s speech. It would have occured to him that if Gandhiji ‘connected’ with the Indian masses, it was largely because of his readiness to do the scavenger’s job in the Calcutta latrines and eventually make that one of his signature causes.
The multitude of TV discussions last night that pretended to forecast what Modi was going to say from the ramparts of the Red Fort today have been proven horribly off the mark. Modi probably decided with deliberation to put the Delhi elites in their place by leaving their beloved city last night for India’s villages enveloped by darkness.
His speech is addressed to the ‘real’ India. The point is, for an ordinary Indian, It matters like hell that he doesn’t have to hang his head in shame in the morning when he wakes up in a long-distance train running across India from Thiruvananthapuram to Hazrat Nizamuddin in Delhi and see his fellow country men in their hundreds defecating in the open, some clutching a plastic bottle of water, most even without that.
That sense of shame is unknown to the Delhi elites. Equally, it matters like hell if the hundreds of millions of the wretched of the earth living in india could have minimum insurance cover to protect their families. I wouldn’t care a damn even if Modi had said nothing in his speech about the multipolar world or the FDI or about the Planning Commission. Poverty is India’s shame. Modi is right in choosing to begin with the basics.
In a recent blog, I compared Modi with Turkey’s Recep Erdogan. Neither was exactly born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Both grew up in the backstreets. Both came up the hard way against seemingly impossible odds loaded against them, and are essentially self-made men and entitled to the pride bordering on aloofness or arrogance that goes with it. Today, as they occupy the heights of power and prestige in their respective capitals, they are also acutely conscious that, nonetheless, they still happen to be ‘outsiders’.
The whiskey-drinking, Porsche-driving, English-speaking elites living in their lavish villas (’kotis’) on the Bosphorous in Istanbul have not ‘accepted’ Erdogan — even after his decade-long rule as Turkey’s Sultan. And he knows perfectly well they will never accept him, either, as one of ‘them’. Modi draws ditto comparison. The knives are already out for him, isn’t it?
What struck me most was that in his speech Modi candidly admitted to himself being an ‘outsider’; secondly, that he unabashedly invoked Gandhiji — rather strange thing for an RSS ‘pracharak’ to do; thirdly, as Erdogan has done time and again, Modi ignored the vanity fair in Delhi and spoke about the concerns of the Indian masses — regarding the ‘basics’.
Why did he do that? As a gifted politician Modi understands why the metaphor of the broom and the latrine still sums up India’s crisis today. So much shit has accumulated after so many Congress Party sessions all over India and Gandhiji was not even around to clean the latrines.