Indira Gandhi and Lee Kuan Yew

Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew is compared to Indira Gandhi by the Indian journalist, Sunanda Datta-Ray, who once worked for The Straits Times.

In his book, Looking East to Look West, exploring India-Singapore relations, based on his interviews with MM Lee, he writes:

Lee and Indira Gandhi shared a brutal commitment to power, an almost brutal pragmatism and a fascination with mystic predictions of the future. Both dominated the scene around them. So much so that though lacking the alliterative resonance of the loyalist chant during the Emergency, ‘Indira is India, India is Indira’, it might be more accurate to recite ‘Kuan Yew is Singapore, Singapore is Kuan Yew’. He is probably the world’s only democratically elected leader who can boast, as France’s Louis XIV is believed to have done, ‘L’etat c’est moi’ (I am the state). That, too, has an Indian parallel. It was only half in jest that British newspapers bestowed on Indira Gandhi the ‘Empress of India’ title invented for Queen Victoria.

MM Lee thought Indira Gandhi was right when, as prime minister, she imposed Emergency rule on India, arresting opposition leaders and censoring the press, in 1975. But MM Lee, who was Singapore’s prime minister then, did not openly support her. Datta-Ray writes:

Asked why he did not say so publicly, he laughs, ‘How could I? They would all squat on me! I am already thought to be authoritarian. Here I am supporting a democrat who is turning into a dictator!’

He admired her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, writes Datta-Ray:

Lee’s perception of India through the prism of caste and class was influenced by his veneration for her first prime minister. He admired Nehru for successfully adapting Westminster’s model to Asian reality. Nehru could arouse mobs like any demagogue but treated the protocols of governance with fastidious deference. His moneyed background, the ease with which he took to anti-colonial policies, his charisma, long-term vision and, most of all, the limitless power he epitomized but chose to rein in with self-imposed constitutional limitations still mesmerizes Lee. Nehru could have been a dictator, someone who would always win a popular mandate with a handsome majority which no other Asian leader could do. Lee thinks Mao Zedong would undoubtedly have lost his deposit if he ever gambled on an election.

MM Lee wanted India to be an Asian counterweight to China, writes Datta-Ray. He mentions how, in his early days as prime minister, Lee sought closer cooperation with India but their interests diverged because of the Cold War. Singapore was an American ally, India close to Soviet Russia.

The two countries drew closer only after neither the Gandhis nor MM Lee was prime minister.

Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who succeeded PM Lee, established cordial relations with India’s then prime minister, PV Narasimha Rao, in the early 1990s.

But Datta-Ray argues it was the culmination of MM Lee’s long-term strategy.

He has delved deep into history, spoken to various people, and quotes them freely, including unnamed Indian Singaporeans who never knew MM Lee had such a high regard for India and thought he was a racist. Not even his Cabinet colleagues knew of the visits he paid to India on his way to and from other countries.

The one key figure missing from this story is SM Goh, who declined to be interviewed, says Datta-Ray.

It is a good read, nevertheless, redolent of times gone by in its stately prose.

MM Lee, brilliant as he is (and so are several of his proteges), can have journalists feeding off his hands if he chooses to with the amazing breadth of his knowledge.

He spoke to Datta-Ray about the brilliance of Indian Brahmins, British-trained Indian Civil Service officers, and outstanding Bengalis.

Datta-Ray, a Bengali whose potted biography on the back cover of the book notes he began his journalistic career in Britain, was smitten.

The former editor of  The Statesman in Calcutta (now Kolkata) writes on the last page:

Like an ancient soothsayer, a Merlin of the East, Lee peers into the mists of the future to draw on a lifetime’s experience to sum up the sweep of history…

Do we see MM Lee cracking a smile?

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