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Kanika Datta: All our Singapores

Kanika Datta  |  New Delhi 

Kanika Datta

Every so often, politicians who are keen to project themselves as forward thinkers talk about replicating Singapore in India. The Smart City project is one manifestation of that touching ambition, and the most recent entrant to the club is Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu - indisputably the First Reformer among Indian chief ministers - who declared that he plans to replicate the city-state in his upcoming state capital Amaravati.

Domestic and foreign businessmen, eternally attracted to the fabled potential of India's consumer market and just as perpetually repelled by the country's unpredictable working environment, love this kind of visionary talk. Of course, like many politicians, businesspeople make spuriously approving noises about living with the "processes" of Indian democracy-their euphemism for the wearying shenanigans in Parliament, capricious laws, legal systems, taxmen and regulators, and unending politics over land acquisition.

But like many politicians, they, too, secretly yearn for the kind of authoritarian regime that Lee Kuan Yew established with such ruthless efficiency. Who cares if Singapore's early history included some determined ethnic cleansing and its administration is a giant variation of a family-run conglomerate in which sons and in-laws dominate and dissidence is suppressed. It's all neat, clean, tidy and functional; none of the inconvenient realities that assail India, such as grinding poverty, the need to consider civil rights and individual liberties or its turbulent dysfunction.

Businessmen never have had a problem with authoritarianism, especially when it is imposed on other people. Those who remember the Emergency will recall how domestic businessmen and the elite were actually quite approving of Indira Gandhi's authoritarianism and suspension of civil liberties (only those who were dragged off to jail under the Kafka-esquely named Maintenance of Internal Security Act, or Misa, were less enamoured).

"The Nation is On the Move," outsize hoardings assured Indians during those months, a homily that would have done North Korea's Dear Leader proud. The business community agreed. Trains ran on time, nobody went on strike, poor people were prevented from breeding like flies thanks to the draconian sterilisation programme and workers were appropriately chastened, or so said executives and promoters, sipping their smuggled Scotch in the privacy of opulent homes.

What would have happened if it had been the business class that had been the majority queuing up at the hustings after Mrs Gandhi called snap elections rather than the poor, the worst victims of the Emergency's excesses? Would they have gotten some version of Singapore in India by the seventies?

The obvious answer is no, but not just because the histories determined their comparative advantages: Singapore started out as a prosperous port city under the British; India as an exploitable resource base for the British. It's a question of size and complexity, too. Lee Kuan Yew established his Asian business wonderland in 718.3 square km at the tip of the Malay peninsula; the average size of an Indian district is 4,300 square km., almost six times larger. Singapore has a population of five million people, about the same as, say, Hugli district in West Bengal. Its ethnic mix was re-engineered early on so that Chinese dominate and Malays and Indians make up an acquiescent minority, a situation we hope never to replicate in rambunctious, multi-ethnic India.

It would also be naïve to think that enlightened authoritarianism of the Lee Kuan Yew variety alone can conjure up a Singapore clone. His real legacy is the solid institutions of governance he established. Its government is efficient and incorruptible, its justice system so smooth that firms often opt for Singapore as a destination for arbitration in international contracts, its tax breaks are attractive and transparently applied, its infrastructure superb, its crime rate non-existent. Small wonder Singapore enjoys a consistent ranking as the best place to do business, that it has emerged as a global financial hub that rivals Switzerland and Hong Kong and enjoys a high perch on the Human Development Indicators rankings.

In contrast, the absence of any or all of the above attributes of basic governance explains why Gurgaon, once laughably feted as the Singapore of India, remains a agglomeration of glass and concrete high rises teetering next to rural-standard infrastructure. Interestingly, Gurgaon is roughly the same size as Singapore - 738 square km - but has more than three times the people (17 million).

Creating and sustaining a Singapore, therefore, is not just about building shiny high-rises around squeaky clean urban agglomerations, which Mr Naidu hopes to create in Amaravati, and establishing authoritarian rule. It demands the kind of institutional reform that occurs at an agonisingly slow pace in India, and, above all, a focus on social infrastructure that successive governments are dismayingly abdicating to the private sector. Every sincere politician knows this. But as many have discovered, cleaning this particular kind of Augean Stable is the least attractive part of being in power.

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First Published: Wed, December 30 2015. 21:46 IST