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‘No single leader can change India’

Ronojoy Sen,TNN | Mar 24, 2015, 07.00 AM IST

SINGAPORE: Most Indian leaders who’ve visited Singapore have expressed admiration for the citystate, citing it as a model for India to emulate. But what were Lee Kuan Yew‘s views on India?

Lee visited India and met its leaders on several occasions and as recently as 2009 took part in a dialogue session in Delhi. But possibly his most recent pronounce ments on India were articulated at an interactive session in 2011 organized by Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies.

That day several questions on India were directed at Lee, who looked frail but with his famed intellect very much in place. One was from an Indian bureaucrat on whether Lee could do to India what he had done to Singapore over three decades. His response was “no single leader can change In dia”. He elaborated that of India’s multiplicity of languages, even someone like then PM Manmohan Singh could probably only speak two: Hindi and Punjabi. So at any one time the Indian PM could address less than a fifth of India’s population, a structural problem that cannot be overcome. Lee contrasted this with China where 90% of China speaks one language and was a much easier country to lead. He said India was a creation of the “British raj and the railways it built” and had limitations. He however, offered solutions for better governance in India: Integrity , meritocracy and a level playing field. He contrasted India’s vastness with Singapore where “your edict runs throughout the country”. In India, he said, “you can say something in Delhi and someone in Bangalore is going to decide something differently.”

He added that “India is diverse and it has to work at its own speed.” He admitted it took him long to realize there were “many different Indias” and that the English language binds English-speaking Indians only up to a point. He felt “Bombay is probably the only place in India where various groups feel at home with each other. If you can make the whole of India like Bombay , you’ve got a different India.”

To a question on Gandhi’s popularity in India cutting across divides, and his alternative paradigm of development, Lee had a firm answer. He said Gandhi was a “special phenomenon, an Indian phenomenon: Austere, self-sacrificing. He led a cause for Indian independence.” He added Gandhi “did not run modern India.” He concluded: “Gandhi as an icon to spur people was a great success. But Gandhi as a transformer of India did not exist.”

The writer is with the National University of Singapore

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