by Pankaj Mishra
Growing up in India in the 1970s and 80s, I often heard people in upper-caste middle class circles say that parliamentary democracy was ill-suited to the country. Recoiling from populist politicians who pandered to the poor, many Indians solemnly invoked the example of Singapore’s leader Lee Kuan Yew. Here was an Oxbridge-educated and suitably enlightened autocrat, who suffered no nonsense about democracy, and, furthermore, believed firmly in the efficacy of publicly caning even minor breakers of the law. Devising his wise policies with the help of experts and technocrats, he simply imposed them on the population. Lee Kuan Yew’s success in transforming a city-state into a major economic power was apparent to all: clean, shiny, efficient, and prosperous Singapore, the very antithesis of corrupt and squalor-prone India.
Such yearnings for technocratic utopia may seem to have little in common with the middle class protests against “corruption” that recently gained much attention before abruptly losing steam at the end of the year. Led by Anna Hazare—an army veteran described in the foreign press as a “simple man in a Gandhian cap” when he went on a hunger strike last summer— the movement was presented by sections of the media in both India and the West as a long overdue political awakening of the middle class, even as India’s “second freedom struggle.” With his unambiguous denunciations of venality in public life, Hazare seemed to have alerted tens of millions of otherwise apolitical Indians to the possibilities of civil society, mass mobilization, and grass-roots activism.