Their similar middle names aren’t the only things linking the two men.
Kulkarni, 67, a retired teacher of drawing in Pimpri Chinchwad township near Pune, says the Prime Minister has made him “world famous" by mentioning him three times in his Man Ki Baat radio programme and interview with Times Now television channel.
One of his old friends called him up from Australia after hearing Modi mention him for his “inspirational" contribution to the Swachh Bharat Kosh (Clean India Corpus) from his pension. Kulkarni, who gets a monthly pension of ₹ 16,000, has given 52 post-dated cheques of ₹ 5,000 each to the corpus. He decided to make his contribution after he heard Modi’s 15 August 2015 speech, where the Prime Minister said 77% of the population in Uttar Pradesh had no access to toilets.
Kulkarni was appalled.
“I have two toilets in my home. Can I not help Modiji build the same for women in Uttar Pradesh who have to wait for darkness to fall to step out to relieve themselves? In Hinduism, the city of Kashi (Varanasi) is known as the city of Lord Mahadev. But I am ashamed that women in Lord Mahadev’s city do not have toilets."
He insists that his contribution is in fact his selfish path to spiritual contentment. “Swaarth se parmarth tak," he says in Hindi—from self-interest to god.
The National Democratic Alliance government launched the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) on 2 October 2014, aiming to make India open-defecation free by 2 October 2019. The mission plans to build more than 10 million individual toilets in urban areas by 2 October 2019, and half a million community and public toilets.
On 27 April 2016, the union ministry of urban development, through a written reply, told the Lok Sabha that by 31 March 2016, more than 1.3 million individual toilets had been built as against a target of 2.5 million. More than 68,000 community and public toilets had been built by that date, against the target of more than 100,000. In rural areas, nearly 19.2 million household toilets have been built since 2 October, 2014, as per the website of the union ministry of drinking water and sanitation.
A total of 63,672 villages—or around 10% of India’s villages—have declared themselves open-defecation free as per this data. The sanitation coverage in rural India has increased from 40.6% to 48.3% since the mission was launched, as per a survey done by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO).
The government of India has also created the Swachh Bharat Kosh (SBK) or Clean India Corpus to facilitate contributions by individuals and companies towards the campaign.
Union finance minister Arun Jaitley told the Lok Sabha through a written reply during the 2016 budget session in March that by 31 January 2016, the corpus had amounted to ₹ 369.74 crore.
Two months back, Kulkarni wrote a letter to the prime minister’s office (PMO) expressing his wish to contribute. He also sent the 20 cheques along with his letter. When his officials told Modi, he was reluctant to accept a contribution from a retired teacher’s modest pension.
But Modi said he would like to meet Kulkarni during his Pune visit last Saturday to launch the Smart City Project.
“When I got a call from the PMO, I could not believe what the officer was saying. My daughter-in-law even suggested we check the number using true dialler! When I went to meet Modiji, I felt like hugging him. But being a teacher, I know I have to follow the protocol. He held my hand for a long time and I gifted him two books on Shivaji Maharaj and Samarth Ramdas," says Kulkarni.
“I also told the PM that this is money earned by ethical means; I want it to be used ethically. He was worried how a pensioner like me would live without one third of the pension. I told him I do not need the entire monthly pension and I am glad he accepted my contribution."
Kulkarni is proud of his family’s support for the gesture. His wife Anjali works as an office superintendent at a Central Ordnance Depot, son Mangal is a marketing professional in Pune, and daughter Manali is an an intern at Delhi’s Vidyasagar Institute of Mental Health, Neuro and Allied Sciences.
Kulkarni has been giving a series of media interviews from his modest two-bedroom flat. The only symbol of middle-class indulgence in his home is a 52-inch television set. Everything else is mundane and modest.
“I am embarrassed by so much of attention. All credit goes to Modiji. He is a great leader who acknowledges the small help that small people like me give," says Kulkarni, clad in a white dhoti and tunic with a saffron scarf.
Kulkarni retired in 2007 from St. Joseph Boys School in Pune’s Khadki region. He proudly calls himself a “hard-core" Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) worker and a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) member. Both are pro-Hindu outfits.
“I worked for 35 years at a missionary school and would regularly attend the Sunday mass at the church in school. My colleagues would ask me if I felt like becoming a Christian. I would say to them that whenever I bowed before Christ I saw Lord Mahadev in him. To me faith means equality," he says.
Why does he trust the government to make good use of his hard-earned money?
“After I heard Modiji’s speech, I did my own study on this issue and found out that to make progress, every citizen must have access to a toilet, which is the most basic thing. I also thought that Modiji is the right person to trust with my money. I felt the same about Lal Bahadur Shastri and Atal Behari Vajpayee," he says.
Kulkarni saw hard times after his father died when he was only 13. “But I did not give up. I did all the hard work for my family. But leaders like Shastri and Vajpayee did all the hard work for the country. Modiji works for 16 hours a day."