Renowned political psychologist Ashis Nandy analyses Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s motives in initiating the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan, his ideas on cleanliness, sanitation, and environment degradation, his reasons for invoking Gandhi, and why his government seems like an NRI government.

Excerpts from an interview.

Could you have imagined, say, a few months ago, Narendra Modi sponsoring a cleanliness drive as prime minister – from inspecting offices for tidiness to his campaign on building toilets and the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan?
I wouldn’t have, but I would have also. I wouldn’t have because I thought that for the first few months he wouldn’t displease anybody. His preliminary statements as prime minister suggested that. He associated himself with Gandhi, not with anybody else, not with Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. [Yet] Modi is India’s Lee Kuan Yew.

The middle classes in all developing societies don’t want to show poverty. China also has this sensitivity about its slums. Though China has fewer slums than India, they are there. Even during the Commonwealth Games in Delhi they tried to hide the poverty by putting up screens all over the place. It was comical.

Modi is looking for a platform so that he can rise above politics while his sidekicks like [Yogi] Adityanath and company can continue to do politics.

Are you saying that Modi’s cleanliness drive fits in with the image he has of himself?
Yes, he believes in controlled democracy and wants the world to know India by cities which are spic-and-span. Image is very important to him, that we shouldn’t be considered second-rate by the white-skin or the yellow-skin ones. This is linked to his feeling of inferiority about India.

Isn’t it contradictory that he is emphasising on cleanliness yet his government has summarily set aside green checks on industrial expansion?
That pollution doesn’t show immediately.

But Modi is a man of science and technology.
He’s not a man of science and technology. His idea of science and technology is derived from newspapers and TV. He is a hardcore development man. Such men always consider green checks as something devised by the West to stop the development in the Third World. There is some truth to it. The West has got away with murder. The ozone layer was destroyed in the first industrial revolution, not in the second industrial revolution. They have not met any of the promises they made under the Kyoto protocol. They have been dishonest at every stage.

But it is also true Modi’s vision is limited. He doesn’t look beyond the simple, obvious political facts. After all, when the environment begins to collapse, the maximum sufferers will also be in the Third World. One-third of Bangladesh, for instance, is supposed to get submerged. No military would be able to shoot Bangladeshis making a desperate bid to enter India.

Are you saying he doesn’t see the contradiction because industrial pollution is largely invisible?
I don’t know whether or not he is capable of seeing. Modi has purchased the idea that it is some troublemakers’ work of raising these environmental issues. The United Progressive Alliance too thought that. I doubt whether any party has seriously considered environmental issues. In fact, not even the communist parties.

So he believes in the science of industry, but not in environmental science.
Look at Gandhi’s idea of environment, which was intertwined with the concept of simplicity and some degree of austerity. He himself lived an austere life. But Modi’s commitment is to high-grade, unlimited industrialisation. He talks like a 19th-century business tycoon. The only good thing that can come out of it immediately is that you have a better bargaining position vis-à-vis the West, which is also changing because of the pressure from its own people to be sensitive to environment.

But some good will come out of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan?
There is no doubt in my mind on that score. The dirtiness in India is not all because of poverty. In fact, villages in interior India where the tribals and the very poor live, those are much cleaner than the industrial slums of Bombay or Calcutta. So his campaign will bring a little focus on cleanliness.

The Swachhta pledge doesn’t even mention open defecation, which is a huge problem. Doesn’t this mean his campaign emphasises on urban priorities and is guided by a certain sense of aesthetics?
Absolutely. What will the foreigners think? What will NRIs think? How would they feel when they go to these areas and feel a sense of inferiority about their country? He is brightening the face of the NRIs, as the Bengali saying goes. This is an NRI government. The NRI consciousness dominates this government. Even UPA II was partly that. The Indian middle class has grown in size but it hasn’t thought through what could be the new ethics for our times. It has neither the capacity to learn nor has produced people who can seriously think about it. A huge majority of our middle class believes in the simple slogan that the only future is to become more like the West.

Modi’s rhetoric echoes that?
I find it psychologically interesting that some people don’t see the obvious, the macro part of the story. Five-star hotels will always be cleaner than one- or two-star hotels. That’s because the amount of water each five star hotel utilises will not be less than what 50 villages consume. Villages automatically become dirty. They have a problem of water. There are structural problems. In earlier efforts under UPA II, the Ganges was cleaned by diverting it to another river system. The Ganges is being made clean for the urbanites.

Just as the Sabarmati river…?
Sabarmati is no longer a river. It is a stinking bloody pond. When it stinks too much, you release the water and bring in new water. It is a hoax to call it a river, it is a con game. You can’t clean rivers like that.

The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan echoes the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, which aimed more at changing cultural norms about open defecation than focussing on building infrastructure. Modi’s emphasis is on building toilets. What explains this policy reversal?
Modi doesn’t know India or his sidekicks don’t know India much. The middle class has lost touch with India, about which they know from newspapers and TV where the coverage is of a different kind. If they had known India, they would have known most people want to live cleanly and that is why interior villages are clean.

The Research Institute for Compassionate Economics has found that half of the people in households that have government-subsidised latrines still defecate in the open.
That is because it is an alien thing. Secondly, look at this business of having toilets in every school. Many schools don’t even have buildings. So the only building they will have will be the toilet. The school will be known by its toilet. There has to be some feel for India.

They have no feel for it?
But some good will come out of this campaign. Government offices are excruciatingly dirty. It is not because they don’t have money. Habits are dirty. People have not learned to look for cleanliness outside their homes. They will pee on the wall. Cleanliness in the public place is not what is understood.

The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has been linked to Gandhi. But wasn’t Gandhi’s concern about sanitation embedded in the larger framework of ethical politics?
It was about simplicity, austerity, and lesser consumption. In that model you can include swachhta in villages. Gandhi called Indian villages dung heaps. Modi can’t dare call it, no prime minister can call it because of the impact his or her statement would have on electoral politics. But Gandhi’s solution for that was not infrastructure. It was about people emulating the way their parents and forefathers had lived. It had something to do with lifestyle. This effort at cleanliness has nothing to do with the lifestyle of a majority of Indians. Just exhortations will not do. Sloganeering will not do.

Why is he invoking the Gandhian paradigm?
He is doing a Gandhi because elections are coming in Maharashtra. He can’t divide people as he used to do earlier. His sidekicks are doing that.  He is trying to say I am above politics. Bending down and touching with his head the steps of Parliament, the invocation of Gandhi, the kind of speech he gave on August 15, the present cleanliness drive – these are all attempts to rise above politics so that he is not associated with the tough politics his side-kicks are playing.

What is driving that?
Political sense. He is a much better politician than the fools who have been in power in recent times. They were technocrats thrown into high positions.

Isn’t Modi trying to project himself as a statesman?
Yes. To be fair to him, I must say that a politician will always be a politician. If in being a politician, he has also to strike a posture of being a statesman, claim he belongs to the tradition of Gandhi, that he is in touch with India’s traditions – he has defended the Muslims of India powerfully – then it can be said that he has some political sense, apart from some ethics. That is one part of the story. The other part is that he has kept some cards up his sleeves to play at right moments and that his sidekicks like Amit Shah are doing. I consider this a blessing – one can be very brazen about certain things. He has, obviously, thought out and planned his strategy.

But Gandhi’s idea of cleanliness was also linked to contesting the idea of purity and pollution, of fighting untouchability.
Purity and pollution Modi won’t touch because caste politics is involved. He will speak in generic terms. Even then I am hoping a post can make a person, be shaped by it.

In the Harijan edition of Feb 18, 1939, Gandhi wrote, “If our municipal councilors are imbued with a real spirit of service, they will convert themselves into unpaid sweepers, bhangis and road-makers, and take pride in doing so.” Do you think, in some senses, Modi is achieving that?
He is trying to break that strict partition [between castes]. Don’t forget it is also part of the tradition of the RSS. Its idea of unity of Hindus included a casteless society.

How would you have wanted Modi to link up his Swachh Bharat Abhiyan with the Gandhian vision?
I would have put in a few words on the idea of purity and pollution, issued a statement saying nightsoil shouldn’t be carried. He should have made clear that he has a slightly larger vision, that his idea of cleanliness is not CWG style.

Modi is driven by the idea of industrialisation. Gandhi was a critic of industrialized societies. Is it jarring for you to hear Modi invoke Gandhi?
In Gujarat, there is a customised image of Gandhi. Even hardboiled industrialists take his name. He is like a benign grandfather sitting on a mantelpiece in a form of statue or photo and blessing your efforts to go for hard industrialisation, hard modernity.

Gandhi has been customised?
It is true for all of India. We are moving towards a Savarkarite state. Savarkar chose Hindutva only as a way of civilising Hindus. He had contempt for Hindus as believers. He wanted to make a nationality out of them. You can’t have a nation-state without a nationality. He was looking for a candidate for nationality. Hindus he found to be in the largest number. He was a non-believer, hardboiled secular. His secularism was of the European kind at the turn of the century.

Isn’t subtle coercion being used to have bureaucrats report to offices on Oct 2 for the Swachh campaign?
They are his main instrument for his project, whatever it is.

You don’t have a problem that students were asked to stay behind on Teacher’s Day to hear his speech?
He is new, so people are enjoying listening to him. Soon it will pall. Indians are not impressed for too long. They ritualise everything.

In 1925, Gandhi wrote in Young India, “Cleanliness is next to godliness. We can no more gain God’s blessing with an unclean body than with an unclean mind.” Against this backdrop, how would you interpret the Prime Minister’s silence on love jihad?
He has been silent not only on love jihad, but on so many things, even on Adityanath’s vitriolic speech. All I am saying, we should be grateful for small mercies – Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is a harmless thing, and that he is trying to identify with a Gandhian, rather than an RSS, project.

Ajaz Ashraf  is a journalist based in Delhi. He is the author of  The Hour Before Dawn, to be released in December by HarperCollins India.