Open Essay

Can Modi be India’s Lee Kuan Yew?

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a journalist and author of several books. He is an Open contributor
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India needs more from the man who has broken the Nehruvian establishment

There is a belief that not just the substance of India’s foreign policy but also the style of governance is undergoing subtle transformation. The change is credited to Narendra Modi, whose forays in personal diplomacy and gusto in trying his hand at outlandish instruments like Japan’s Taiko drums and the Mongolian horsehead fiddle (Morin Khuur) imply a new adventurousness. But he may not be aware that Palmerston’s formula of being ‘a Conservative at home and a Liberal abroad’ no longer works in a globalised world where all politics is local.

The invitation to regional leaders to his inaugural was a significant diplomatic coup. Binyamin Netanyahu will greatly appreciate the first visit by an Indian prime minister even if Palestine and Jordan are also included. Singaporeans were delighted when Modi attended Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral. They were also flattered when the tricolour flew at half-mast in New Delhi as a mark of respect to the 92-year-old statesman he called “a lion among leaders”. India is normally as grudging about flag courtesies as Queen Elizabeth after Diana was killed.

It’s cultural stubbornness. Margaret Thatcher graciously curtsied to Ronald Reagan’s coffin despite serious political differences. One cannot imagine Indira Gandhi making comparable obeisance to Richard Nixon. Her more-Indian-than-any- born-Indian daughter-in-law’s head was defiantly uncovered head at Mother Teresa’s funeral. The royal Duchess of Kent, representing Queen Elizabeth, wore a hat and veil, and Jordan’s Muslim Queen Noor draped a scarf over her head. Indians speculated Sonia Gandhi was trying to be a good Hindu and distance herself from European Christian ritual. Someone should have advised her that a Hindu woman also pulls her sari over her head to show respect.

Indian disregard for custom and courtesy was gratingly evident at John F Kennedy’s funeral where Vijayalakshmi Pandit, India’s United Nations representative, was one of the lowest ranking envoys in a gathering that included Emperor Haile Selassie as well as the kings, presidents and prime ministers of the world’s most important countries. Pandit made herself even more conspicuous by being the first to walk out of the hall as soon as the service ended. One wasn’t sure whether she was establishing that India was too important to conform or that Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister was entitled to flout decorum.

The message that India values Singapore’s friendship has to be hammered home to a traditionally conceited and supercilious domestic constituency. Indians think it smart to look down on Singapore. It is tiny, lacks a hoary past, is seen as illiberal and—yes!—is stinking rich. When Peter Hazlehurst of The Times coined that marvellous phrase about Indira Gandhi being ‘slightly left of self-interest’, he might have been speaking of almost India’s entire ruling class. Several well-placed friends were outraged when I went to live in Singapore in 1993. Quite a few of them later approached me for openings there, if not for themselves then for their children.

Modi’s honesty may not succeed in changing attitudes overnight. Many Indians who migrate to the United States still make a habit of running down everything American. Yet, if anyone can make a difference, it is the man who represents a major break with the capital’s Nehruvian Congress establishment. Rajiv Gandhi tried at the beginning but his “safari-suited brigade” (to cite Madhavsinh Solanki’s sneer) couldn’t live up to the challenge. PV Narasimha Rao was more successful. But the circumstances in which he ascended the gaddi forced him to dissimulate. When I expressed scepticism about his professed commitment to “the Nehru line”, Narasimha Rao stared at me and said, “Manu the law-giver gave the law. It was up to each Brahmin to interpret it!”

It is precisely because Modi lacks that intellectual depth and flexibility that he is his own man when it comes to promising e-visas to the Chinese, buying Rafale fighters and endorsing Barack Obama’s Asia-Pacific strategy. As he also reiterates, he is an outsider in the Delhi Durbar that is now his to command. The foreign diplomat who said golf no longer holds the entrée didn’t mean it literally since Manmohan Singh and AB Vajpayee didn’t have any taste for fashionable pursuits either. But the implied lifestyle—so profoundly coveted by India’s social elite—now yields fewer political dividends. The bureaucrats on whom Modi is said to rely are men of substance rather than style. The political birds of passage fluttering in his vicinity are not apparently allowed to perch in governance.

Chanakyapuri rejects the ‘invisibility’ in which gossip shrouds Sushma Swaraj. True, the Prime Minister keeps relations with the US, China and Pakistan in his own hands, but the diplomatic corps finds the External Affairs Minister a capable, confident and hands-on custodian of all other aspects of India’s foreign policy. It also admires her as a parliamentarian. South Block officials concur in both assessments even as some might chafe at the Prime Minister’s independence.

His is recognised as an indigenous government reflecting the responses of the bulk of 1.2 billion Indians. Modi doesn’t echo Nehru’s disdain of New York’s wealth. Neither can he boast like Nehru of being able to dazzle Americans with his European persona. His simple self is evident in the joy with which he preens himself on calling Obama by his first name and of how close they have become. The suit that sent shudders through Westernised upper middle-class India was typical of an outsider’s pride in arriving. Foreign diplomats see all this as essentially Indian; they enjoy talking to the Prime Minister through an interpreter, all the while conscious he understands more English than he lets on.

The main complaint is of secretiveness. There is no kitchen cabinet as in Indira Gandhi’s time. Unlike Morarji Desai and Vajpayee, Modi has no influential family members. He lacks Rajiv’s circle of chums or Narasimha Rao’s cronies. Nor is he saddled like his predecessor with an extra-constitutional centre of power. He is the Great Solitary. Almost all authority is vested in the Prime Minister’s Office. A young diplomat who served an earlier term in New Delhi regrets it is more difficult now to get appointments with PMO officials.

Two incidents indicate how much foreign diplomats sometimes had to adopt Indian tactics even to gain legitimate ends. They concern Singapore projects and two Singapore high commissioners, Lam Peck Heng and Ong Keng Yong.

Lam was in a dilemma when Narasimha Rao’s Congress Government was defeated in 1996. Manmohan Singh, slated as the star speaker at an ambitious three-day Global Indian Entrepreneurs Conference that Singapore was organising in an early attempt to reserve a slice of India’s expected economic cake, backed out. Vajpayee’s Government (with Jaswant Singh holding the Finance portfolio) fell after 13 days, and P Chidambaram, who held the portfolio under HD Deve Gowda, said he was too busy preparing his first budget. Appealing to Deve Gowda through the foreign office—as protocol demanded—would take time. But Ng Lang, the Singapore high commission’s enterprising young first secretary, had made a friend among Deve Gowda’s Karnataka entourage and he agreed to smuggle them in among the state governors who were meeting the Prime Minister that day.

Deve Gowda had taken off his slippers and was sitting with his bare feet on a table, flicking through a magazine, when the two Chinese walked in. He looked very surprised, but Ng’s friend spoke quickly to him in Kannada. Lam says he then put on a sad face and said his job was on the line. As a good friend of Singapore, the Prime Minister had to help him. “Deve Gowda took pity on me and called Chidambaram. Then he told me in broken English that Chidambaram would go.” Chidambaram was not happy at having his arm twisted. India’s chief of protocol telephoned huffily to complain Lam had breached diplomatic propriety. But the job was done.

The second problem concerned Singapore’s S$250-million International Technology Park in Bangalore. Water was a major problem. Since all the Karnataka government’s clients relied on the same reservoir, no one was assured of a regular supply. The Janata Dal Chief Minister JH Patel and his officials indulged in a great deal of ‘juggling’ and Ong had to fly down every month to ensure the 28-hectare estate did not dry up. “If we turned our face and went back to New Delhi, our pipeline was closed and opened to another consumer!” Ong said.

On one critical occasion, Patel’s helpful secretary told Ong the Chief Minister was visiting New Delhi, and made an appointment for 9 o’clock the next morning at Karnataka House. An embarrassed Ong—unlike Indians, the Chinese respect privacy—sat down near the door in the Chief Minister’s suite but Patel waved him forward and asked why he had come. “The guy had just woken up, I could see him sitting by his bed. I think he probably had a couple of drinks the night before because he still had very bloodshot eyes!” Ong explained the park would have no water unless the last stretch of pipe was laid quickly. “I do not know whether he was awake or not, but he said ‘Where is the paper? Where is the paper?’ I gave it to him. He scribbled something and gave it to his secretary who was standing beside him with tea. ‘Okay, Excellency you can go, don’t worry about it.’” Again, it was done.

Business is probably more straightforward now, at least in areas of NDA responsibility. But there is a feeling that either Modi can’t resist the temptation of catchy slogans or has lost his old zest for follow-up action. His admirable ‘Make in India’ programme could be the unmaking of India without land, power, roads, communications and a distribution network. ‘Swachh Bharat’ might be achieved more easily if the armies of cleaners the Government and its institutions already employ are made to do the work for which they are paid. A visit to the malodorous lavatory in New Delhi’s main National Archives building indicates ‘Swachh Bharat’ is no more than a slogan like Indira Gandhi’s ‘Garibi Hatao’.

Finally, the Government could do with a softer and more inclusive image. Taking Manmohan Singh to Lee’s funeral might have helped achieve that. Obama’s five-man presidential delegation led by Bill Clinton included Henry Kissinger from the Republican ranks. The absence of a similar bipartisan consensus in India is all the more reason why Singaporeans would have been impressed by Modi’s ability to rise above narrow differences and magnanimously acknowledge the high esteem in which Lee held his predecessor.

Kissinger, who was also there, once said of Lee, “The mark of a great leader is to take his society from where it is to where it has never been.”

Lee took Singapore from the third world to the first. Narendra Modi has been presented with the opportunity of doing the same for India if he can shed his state and party blinkers and remember he isn’t Prime Minister of only the 31 per cent of the electorate that voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party. The entire country is now his parish.