ON 2 OCTOBER 2014, just months into his job as prime minister, Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Mission, the most ambitious cleanliness campaign in Indian history. Not by coincidence, this was the very date of the birth anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi. Modi, in dramatic style, appeared before a battery of cameras to sweep the courtyard of a police station in a Dalit residential colony in central Delhi. “A clean India would be the best tribute India could pay to Mahatma Gandhi on his one-hundred-and-fiftieth birth anniversary in 2019,” he said, promising to transform sanitation and waste-management in the country by that day.
Since the launch, Modi has put enormous effort into making the Swachh Bharat Mission a flagship programme of his rule. He spoke of it in his annual Independence Day speeches, televised live from the ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort, and at campaign rallies in election-bound states. He roped in every layer of India’s vast government—from the cabinet, through the ministries and state and district administrations, down all the way to individual urban authorities and village panchayats. He also imposed a cess of 0.5 percent on all taxable services to help raise money for the campaign. Late last year, after Modi demonetised the country’s entire supply of high-value currency notes, the replacement notes, which millions were desperately queuing for, appeared carrying the Swachh Bharat Mission logo—Gandhi’s signature round glasses. It was a move indicative of the government’s incredible zeal for drawing attention to the campaign.
On the second anniversary of the Swachh Bharat Mission came the proclamation of one of its most touted successes. To mark Gandhi’s birth and the campaign’s founding in 2016, some of the top leaders of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party gathered at Porbandar—Gandhi’s birthplace on the Gujarat coast. There, they declared that Gujarat, Modi’s home state, had eradicated open defecation in all urban areas. The minister for urban development, M Venkaiah Naidu, beamed in via live video to hail this “interim gift” to Gandhi, which was to set the stage for the “final gift” in 2019.