Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini is still remembered by many Italians as the ruler who “made the trains run on time.” In her book Experiencing the War as ‘The Enemy Other’, Wendy Ugolini wrote that, in times of economic and political turmoil, most Italians tend to skip the fact that Mussolini was the founder of 20th century fascism who exercised extreme political repression and led Italy into a disastrous war. Their response to this is often, “Yes, but he made the trains run on time.”

In an April 3, 1994 article in UK’s The Independent, Irish journalist Brian Cathcart explained that Mussolini “ran the trains on time” was a way of saying that the government and state under him ran with clockwork precision.

Cathcart wrote that the impression was nothing but a myth, carefully constructed by Mussolini’s propaganda machine.

The optics of cleanliness campaigns have been used throughout modern history by populists

According to Cathcart, Mussolini made sure to be photographed around trains. But both Ugolini and Cathcart wrote that the truth was that trains in Italy actually never ran on time.

At the end of World War II, the spectre of authoritarian regimes in Europe greatly receded. The booming post-War economies in the US and Europe helped governments to install economic and social policies without indulging in populist optics. They were able to instil genuine awareness among the populace about various social, political and economic aspects of life. Consequently, the people voluntarily decided to exhibit ‘responsible’ social behaviours.

Mussolini’s example of constructing the “trains run on time” myth to build the faulty perception that he was running Italy like clockwork was picked up by political entities in various Asian countries. Asia is the largest continent, having some of the most populated and congested countries in the world. Many of these countries have huge metropolises with serious infrastructural problems. Many of them are also extremely dirty.

Thus, for decades, many Asian rulers have tried to exhibit and signal their intent to clean up the political, social and economic mess through cleanliness drives which are often accompanied by images of a head of government cleaning a street with a broom. The intended message is: “I’m here to clean up things.”

Take, for instance, the first ever anti-encroachment drive in Pakistan. It took place right at the beginning of the Ayub Khan regime (1958-69). His announcement that he will go after corrupt men, hoarders and smugglers was almost immediately followed by pictures of bulldozers razing to the ground ‘encroachments’ in the busy market areas of Karachi, Lahore and Dhaka.

Z.A. Bhutto, when he came to power in December 1971, promised to “pick up the pieces” (of a Pakistan shattered by the East Pakistan debacle). The gradual mucky status of Karachi, for example, reminded him of a broken Pakistan. Historian Stanley Wolpert in his detailed biography of Z.A. Bhutto, quoted the many letters that Bhutto as prime minister wrote to then chief minister of Sindh, Mumtaz Bhutto, asking him to clean up Karachi and “restore its former glory.” But, to Bhutto, this did not require public optics such as cleanliness drives; even though his regime did initiate a ‘beautification project’ of Karachi in 1973-74 which included surrounding the city’s slums with walls.

In 1975, the Congress Party government headed by Indira Gandhi imposed an emergency after facing a spate of protests and accusations of corruption. After imposing emergency rule, Indira Gandhi announced that she would clean up the country and get rid of the “enemies of India.”

Historian Stanley Wolpert in his detailed biography of Z.A. Bhutto, quoted the many letters that Bhutto as prime minister wrote to then chief minister of Sindh, Mumtaz Bhutto, asking him to clean up Karachi and “restore its former glory.”

This announcement was not only followed a well-publicised drive to sterilise thousands of underclass Indians (to control India’s population bulge). The drive backfired when riots erupted in Delhi’s slums.

In July 1977 when Gen Zia toppled the Bhutto government in a military coup, he too promised to clean up. Though the clean-up in this respect mostly meant the arrest and public flogging of opponents, the intent was first demonstrated by an order to public corporations, such as Karachi’s KMC, to “properly clean up the city.”

After the rise of the MQM in Karachi in 1987, the party would often launch cleanliness drives. Some right-wing Urdu newspapers repeatedly described these drives as symbolising the party’s desire to “clean out non-Mohajirs [from Karachi].”

On the other hand, Dutch academic, Oskar Verkaaik in his October 2016 essay in the Journal of South Asian Studies wrote that, during ethnic upheavals in Karachi, unpicked garbage would build up in the city. So when in 1992 the state decided to “clean-up Karachi of troublemakers”, it decided to call it “Operation Clean-Up” because the garbage symbolised the condition of Karachi’s politics.

Recently, the populist president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan have promised to clean-up corruption in their countries. Not surprisingly, this was kick-started by cleanliness drives in which PM Duterte and PM Khan were photographed cleaning streets with a broom. Philipino academic and managing editor of Asian Studies: Journal of Critical Perspectives on Asia, Janus Isaac Nolasco calls it the “politics of cleanliness”, in which a ruler actually justifies some not-very-clean antics of a government “from an aesthetic angle.”

In his July 2018 essay, Nolasco suggested that the sight of a government getting streets cleaned up has a curious impact on the people of countries which are largely considered to be dirty. He wrote that the politics of cleanliness “deploys an aesthetic that professes a devotion to cleanliness, which connotes progress, efficiency and discipline. Conversely, it has a marked aversion to dirt, which is associated with poverty, crime and disorder.”

But, the fact is, in most countries, cleansing political/economic/social mess and actual filth from the streets is never achieved. It calls for a certain kind of socio-economic and political environment that makes it society’s own commitment instead of a symbolic projection signalled by a government with a broom in hand.

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 21st, 2018