Why Singapore PM’s ‘Nehru’s India’ remarks sparked a rare diplomatic row

Lee Hsien Loong had pointed to criminal charges faced by many of India’s lawmakers

Shweta Sharma
in Delhi
Saturday 19 February 2022 14:24
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<p>India’s prime minister Narendra Modi with Singapore’s PM Lee Hsien Loong in Singapore in 2018 </p>

India’s prime minister Narendra Modi with Singapore’s PM Lee Hsien Loong in Singapore in 2018

Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong’s remarks on India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru while referencing the importance of integrity have stoked a rare diplomatic row with the country.

During his nearly 40-minute speech in the city-state’s parliament on Wednesday, Mr Hsien Loong referred to India as “Nehru’s India” and suggested that a decline in “moral values” had taken place since its first prime minister was in charge in 1947.

“Nehru’s India has become one where, according to media reports, almost half the MPs [members of parliament] in the Lok Sabha [India’s lower house of Parliament] have criminal charges pending against them, including charges of rape and murder. Though it is also said that many of these allegations are politically motivated,” he said.

Mr Hsien Loong’s comments came on the heels of a 15 February report by the Singapore parliament’s Committee of Privileges, which is looking into charges of lying by members of the country’s opposition, The Workers’ Party.

Mr Hsien Loong said it was important to “prevent Singapore from going down the same road”.

Taking a stern view of the Singaporean prime minister’s comments, India’s external affairs ministry summoned Simon Wong, the country’s envoy, to lodge a protest over comments made by Mr Hsien Loong, according to government sources.

“The remarks by the prime minister of Singapore were uncalled for,” said an Indian official, who declined to be identified, reported Reuters. “We have taken up the matter with the Singaporean side.”

Singapore is a key strategic partner for India, which is why the comments triggered a rare controversy between the two countries that are both former British colonies and that otherwise share friendly relations.

Mr Hsien Loong also referred to “Ben-Gurion’s Israel” and the UK’s “Partygate” scandal in the speech.

“Ben-Gurion’s Israel has morphed into one which can barely form a government, despite four general elections in two years. Meanwhile, a stream of senior politicians and officials in Israel face a litany of criminal charges, some have gone to jail,” he said.

Beginning his passionate speech, Mr Hsien Loong said some leaders who fought and won independence are often “individuals of great courage, immense culture and outstanding ability”.

“They came through the crucible of fire and emerged as leaders of men and nations. They are the David Ben-Gurions, the Jawaharlal Nehrus, and we have our own too,” he said.

He went on to say that many political systems in these countries today would be quite unrecognisable to their founding leaders.

“What is to prevent Singapore from going down the same road? Nothing. We are not intrinsically smarter or more virtuous than other countries. Modern Singapore does not come born with a failsafe mechanism,” he added.

Mr Hsien Loong’s comment sparked a controversy in India, with the country’s opposition leaders calling out the ruling right-wing, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government.

India’s main opposition Congress party, of which Nehru was once president and which is now led by Nehru’s great grandson Rahul Gandhi, took the opportunity to extol its leader and took a dig at his rivals.

“Nehru’s magnanimity continues to inspire world leaders even today,” the Congress said in a statement on Twitter. “Pity the ones here at home who fail to have the vision to understand the exceptional leader he was.”

Former union minister Shashi Tharoor, also of the Congress party, said it was “unseemly” for the foreign ministry to “summon” the diplomat of a friendly country while suggesting Mr Modi’s government be “less thin-skinned”.

“Most unseemly for MEA to summon the HC of a friendly country like Singapore over some remarks by their PM to their own parliament. He was making a general (and largely accurate) point. Given the stuff our own pols utter, we must learn to be less thin-skinned!” the former UN under-secretary general tweeted.

The Singaporean prime minister did not cite any sources for his claims about criminal charges against some Indian politicians, but is believed to have been referring to a 2019 report by Indian nonprofit Association of Democratic Reforms.

The report found that as many as 43 per cent of the candidates who won the general election that year faced criminal charges.

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