Many of us who watched Gus Van Sant’s Milk can’t ignore the parallel between Harvey Milk launching a campaign against dog poo on the streets of San Francisco and Narendra Modi’s recent campaign on Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan. Its politics is indisputable: everyone dislikes dirty streets, no reasonable person is going to oppose the idea and it gains media attention. The tested and proven formula of tagging others to increase the probability of the campaign’s virality was unfortunately not available to Harvey Milk, unlike to Modi.
The most important distinction between these two campaigns however is not the availability of experimental data on virality probability enhancing techniques demonstrated by the Ice Bucket Challenge; or that of a platform like Facebook. It’s that Harvey Milk was a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. And at that level of government clean streets were his domain. So his campaign, however cynically exploitative, was still aimed at doing the job he was elected for.
Narendra Modi won the 2014 elections partly on a promise to send functions of the state which were usurped by the centre in the previous UPA government back to the state capitals. This was fair criticism; the rights expansion agenda of Manmohan Singh administration launched schemes such as the NRHM and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan that trampled upon states’ rights and infringed on state subjects. In a federal structure the elected state governments are supposed to be responsible for health and education. The idea being that the more immediate a problem, the closer the seat of power addressing it ought to be.
One could try and make those arguments as to which domain and what authority need to be at the central/federal level and which ones need to be at the state level. From first principles. However, James Madison did that better some 225 years ago. Alexander Hamilton went a step further and wrote,
But it will not follow from this doctrine that acts of the large society which are not pursuant to its constitutional powers, but which are invasions of the residuary authorities of the smaller societies, will become the supreme law of the land. These will be merely acts of usurpation, and will deserve to be treated as such.
Not even Narendra Modi seems to dispute any of it if his own election speeches are taken to be evidence of his thought. And the most basic of such local government function is to clean out the street garbage. Admittedly, most Indian Cities do a bad job of this primary responsibility.
The reason for this failure of authority at the small society level could be many: perhaps local governments do not have enough powers or they may lack the political incentive or they may not have enough powers to raise revenue to pursue this basic function. There could be plenty other reasons which may require a study of its own and are beyond the scope of this post. But the question that this raises is: if small societies fail at their task, should the large society authority take over? And Hamilton, thankfully, has answered that already for us with a resounding NO. Which Modi agrees to as well.
The Prime Minister and his team may however put forward the following defence: this is a political messaging campaign to instil a change in mindset. That’s an argument that is, ironically, well supported by the fact that there is no actual policy or plan to achieve ends as far as Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan is concerned. It’s merely a call to action. Apart from being slightly bizarre in that the strength of an announcement is its lack of detail, this line of reasoning will be mildly insulting to people even if it were intended to have the philosophical rectitude as we assume it does.
The above line of reasoning essentially assumes local people as a group are incapable of achieving clean streets because they don’t know better. And it requires the national people/authority to tell them. Firstly, that’s politically insulting and Democracy has no place for such lecturing even if it were true. Especially in the absence of concrete funding. Secondly, we know that line of reasoning is empirically untrue now, given someone got a Nobel Prize for saying that, among other things.
The other line of argument that maybe put forward in favour of Modi is: this is political posturing and all politics is about posturing; at least this is something that can cause no harm. It can only make people act positively. But that is precisely the kind of optics that causes the dirt to swept under the carpet. The call to action shifts the blame on people instead of investigating if local governments don’t have enough powers of taxation or other forms of political authority. If the lacuna is that local governments lack the authority to raise resources they need to tackle this via enforcement before reaching the point of criticality to consistently ward off tragedy of commons, then that’s a serious problem that Modi has deliberately avoided. In the process, he’s also ignored addressing questions on federalism he touted were his differentiators. Worse, he’s exacerbated the problem by shifting the blame.