Over the last few years, battles over symbols — for long an Indian pre-occupation — have reached a crescendo and show no signs of abating. Perhaps no historical figure has been mined as thoroughly as M.K. Gandhi (although B.R. Ambedkar today comes a close second). No government would dare dislodge his endorsement of all Indian currency notes, no matter what colour or denomination they come in, even though we know that this would have been the most distasteful of associations for someone like him. We are only too painfully aware that this glut of images of Gandhi, avowed with such passion, frees the Indian people of any obligation to practise Gandhian ways of living, let alone uphold political principles or economic values.
Neither a passionate adherence to truth nor an ardent desire for non-violence is the mark of our public life today. But the reduction of the hallowed figure of the Mahatma to a social worker with a broom, from which no more than a pair of spectacles has been distilled, was an achievement like no other of the present government at the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission in 2014.
The spectacles have assumed a menacing ubiquity, looming large on bus stops and calendars, even as sewer deaths, manual scavenging and a deep-seated aversion to public hygiene (linked no doubt to caste) continue to remind us of what really needs to be fixed for a cleaner, healthier and sustainable India.