Narendra Modi, the man most likely to become India’s next prime minister, has a wicked turn of phrase. In one of his most memorable remarks, he subverted his strong association with Hindu asceticism by declaring his support for “toilets before temples”. The same phrase, spoken by a Congress party cabinet minister, had provoked outrage from the Bharatiya Janata party of which Mr Modi is head. The BJP said the remark threatened to “destroy the fine fabric of religion and faith”. But the party hierarchy, knowing that its fate depends on the so-called “Modi wave”, barely demurred when its candidate adopted the slogan as his own.
The BJP leader is quite right to declare that India should spend less money on devotion and more on sanitation. According to 2011 census data, nearly half of households have no access to a toilet, forcing inhabitants to defecate in the open. More Indians own a mobile phone than a lavatory of their own. Poor hygiene, not lack of food, is the main reason that 40 per cent of children are malnourished. Much of Mr Modi’s appeal, which has swept through India like a brush fire, lies in his promise to conjure the growth that will eradicate such dire conditions and set his supporters on the road to a middle-class life.