The toilet as a political structure

A year before the BJP came to power at the Centre in 1996, I recall getting into an argument with its patriarch LK Advani over what he described as the ’structure’ in Ayodhya.

“According to you, it is a mosque. According to us, it was just a structure,” he told me.

He did not care for my repartee. “If it had been anything other than a mosque, like a school, a hospital, a municipal building or even a toilet, you would not have brought down that ’structure’,” I had shot back.

Advani had refused to answer but more than two decades after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, I wonder what he thinks about his chela Narendra Modi espousing the cause of toilets before temples.

It was a programme taken up at the height of the Ayodhya movement even by their ally, the Shiv Sena, when they came to power in Maharashtra in 1995. They promised to build toilets for women in all villages across the state in direct confrontation with Sharad Pawar who had been the first chief minister to come out with a policy for women and enact a law in 1994 that is unique to Maharashtra.

Nowhere in the world has it even been thought of as a policy, let alone been implemented. Pawar had declared that if 50% or more women in any village oppose a liquor shop, the Collector could hold a referendum and in case of a majority vote, shut down the liquor stores.

Many villages have gone alcohol free since and now the law is being extended to the jurisdiction of municipal councils despite opposition from an active liquor mafia and the fact that the govenment loses large sums in excise revenues by banning the sales of alcohol.

In four and a half yesrs, though, the Sena-BJP alliance could not build toilets in even 5% of the villages they had promised to cover under the scheme. If they had done more, they may not have lost the elections in 1999 and may have stood a fair chance of showcasing their own development work during their time.

Now Narendra Modi espouses the cause of toilets before temples, though Gujarat is a state where more than half the population does not have closed toilets while states like Kerala have almost the entire population covered.

Having travelled by road across Maharashtra and Gujarat, I can say while highway toilets in Gujarat are clean and accessible, these are mostly at restaurants and petrol pumps while on the Maharashtra side of the border you might now find a sulabh shauchalaya every few metres across cities and even the highways.

Even so, most of Maharashtra’s politicians are insensitive to the travelling needs of women – I would direct readers to my first ever blog on this website ‘No ‘Ladies’ among the men here!‘ from March 2009 – and that is pretty much the case even today.

But I agree with union minister Jairam Ramesh that had the priority of toilets over temples occurred to Modi and the BJP more than 20 years ago, we may not have had so much bloodshed in the name of religion and the state of the nation woud have been a completely different picture.

It is just as well that Modi now roots for toilets before temples but sadly that idea is not original as everyone by now knows how the BJP had sent goons to urinate before Jairam Ramesh’s house when he had said much the same thing a year ago in nearly the same words.

I notice that both the BJP and Modi have been fast running out of ideas – if they do not have the temple, they do not have anything unique to project as their USP at all – even Modl’s talk about India becoming a soft power was plagiarised from a talk given by Shashi Tharoor, another union minister in 2009 – and even then Tharoor had made it clear the idea belonged to Joseph Nye and not him. Modi should have added a similar codicil to make himself appear more honest nd committed.

Still, I am willing to give him the benefit of doubt on this one if the BJP now declares in its manifesto that toilets are indeed more important than temples and should have higher priority in their scheme of things. But if this is now just some more gas coming out of Narendra Modi’s boasts, I believe Modi and the BJP will fall into the danger of attempting to become all things to all people and mean actually nothing to anybody at all.

I personally believe there can be no equation of a toilet with a temple and that both Ramesh and Modi were wrong in their choice if words. But I would agree with both of them on the need to pioritise the building of toilets in villages, not the least because it is even today impossible to go for a cross country walk anywhere in India without stumbling across pools of, wel,l you know what that quite takes away from the charms of the sylvan surroundings one might be in.

Modi did say only he can dare to say that toilets should be built before temples. Now he must put his money where his mouth is and put that in his party manifesto. The structure in Ayodhya can wait a little longer, for all that people care, indeed.

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