Thinking Right

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Vivekananda International Foundation has become a talent supplier to the Modi regime
Standing at a discreet distance from the thoroughfare in the diplomatic district of Chanakyapuri, is a building with a stone façade and a bland exterior, looking as dormant as the building for Kathak Kendra that shares its boundary. Outside is a blue board that says ‘Vivekananda International Foundation’ (VIF) and inside its forecourt is a life-size statue of Swami Vivekananda. According to the Foundation’s website, the building houses a state- of-the-art library, an auditorium, a conference room and cabins for scholars. When Open visited the headquarters of this New Delhi think-tank, we were informed by a woman at the front desk that all its members were tied up in meetings. The only sign of life, however, were the cars parked in front, some with red beacons.

In the two weeks since the new Union Government has come to power, the Vivekananda International Foundation has become more than just another think-tank based in the capital. Two of the biggest appointees of the Modi Government are closely associated with it. Nripendra Misra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, is on the executive council of the Foundation, and Ajit Doval, Narendra Modi’s National Security Advisor-designate, is its founder and director.

In the power circles of Delhi, the Vivekananda International Foundation is being viewed as a kind of policy talent pool, perhaps even a quasi-official arm of the Government that will help shape public policy.

The Foundation is the brainchild of former Intelligence Bureau chief Ajit Doval, a man who has the reputation of being one of Independent India’s best ever spies, having undertaken daring undercover work in Pakistan and even infiltrating the Mizo National Army, among other achievements that highlight his long career as an intelligence officer. After his retirement in 2005, he set up the Foundation in 2009; but it was in 2011, when it organised a seminar on corruption and black money, that the Foundation first drew public attention.

As Modi’s campaign began with Swami Vivekananda as a central figure, the Foundation achieved even greater prominence. Rumours in Delhi suggest that it was at the forefront of the exercise to drum up international support for Modi in the run-up to the General Election. The Foundation is also widely believed to be at the centre of the movement against corruption led by Baba Ramdev.

The Foundation’s list of members includes former bureaucrats and intelligence officials, and even retired army chiefs. Unofficially, it is dubbed a conglomerate of ‘spooks and spies’. Says a political watcher, “All its members have two things in common: they wield a lot of clout, and are right-of-centre.”

On its advisory board are the former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing AK Verma, former-foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, former Army chief VN Sharma, former Air chief S Krishnaswamy, former Border Security Force chief Prakash Singh, and RSS ideologue S Gurumurthy. On the executive council is former- home secretary Anil Baijal; and its research team includes economist Bibek Debroy as well.

Requests for interviews with members were stonewalled and we were directed repeatedly to its website; but eventually we were able to speak with Lieutenant General (Retd) RK Sawhney, former Director General Military Intelligence and Distinguished Fellow at the Foundation. “We are like any other think-tank,” he says over the phone, “and everything we have done is on our website. Why this sudden interest in us? Although we are flattered by it.”

The Foundation’s website lists in detail its research and activities. Its mission statement: ‘VIF is an independent, non-partisan institution that promotes quality research and in-depth studies and is a platform for dialogue and conflict resolution.’ It invites scholars and subject specialists for conferences and lectures, while its areas of research include national security, international relations and diplomacy, technological and scientific studies as well as neighbourhood studies. Some experts who have delivered talks in recent months: Vice Admiral (Retd) Anup Singh, SY Quraishi, former chief election commissioner and VK Saraswat, former scientific advisor to India’s Ministry of Defence.

In the month of May, it hosted a book release; the book was titled Bangladesh Migrants: A Threat to India, written by PK Mishra, Senior Fellow at the Foundation, and also released a paper by Major General (Retd) PK Chakravorty on the need for India-Japan-Vietnam strategic partnerships to counter the hegemony of China. A paper by Visiting Fellow Radhakrishna Rao urges the new Government to fix the defence production scenario of the country and reduce imports of arms and ammunition.

Professor Kamal Mitra Chenoy of Jawaharlal Nehru University says that all governments rely on think- tanks for track III diplomacy and the new dispensation will turn to the Foundation for these services. He adds, “Even if not Hindutva-oriented, VIF is a proponent of the strong state and that agenda will be pushed.”

As Chenoy says, think-tanks around the world and in India are increasingly eschewing research for political advocacy. Chatham House, the most influential think-tank in the United Kingdom, commissioned a study earlier this year on the growing role of think- tanks in shaping the policy-making process in the Western world. As institutions like these veer away from policy research and towards high-level decision making, this change is sure to be reflected in India, which, after the US, China and United Kingdom, has the fourth largest number of think-tanks in the world.