New Delhi: There has been a long-held perception that the left-of-centre ideology has dominated Delhi’s intellectual space and discourse.
Over the past few years, however, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have made a concerted effort to change that notion. And a large part of this effort has been driven by a set of think-tanks with links to both organisations.
Among the think-tanks spearheading the right-wing’s attempts to establish its ideology of “New India” are the Vivekananda International Foundation, the India Foundation, the Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, the India Policy Foundation and the Public Policy Research Centre.
From authoring reports that highlight the Modi government’s policies to creating platforms where key BJP ministers can articulate their views on contentious issues such as Article 370, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Triple Talaq — this new “right intelligentsia” is giving the BJP and its backers the ‘intellectual ammunition’ it has traditionally known to lack.
The foundations often also provide personnel for key positions in government bodies across the country.
The project to create an alternate sphere of thought, however, has already faced its share of attacks and criticism. Be it allegations of lacking analytical and academic rigour, absence of enough intellectual faces or the inability to make an effective dent in policy-making — this newly emerging right-wing ecosystem is already confronting some existential questions and challenges.
“I would neither completely disagree with them (critics), nor completely agree,” said Shaurya Doval, who is on the board of governors of the India Foundation. “The Left has been around for much longer and that gives them an advantage. But we are now catching up.”
Right-wing intellectuals: The ‘step-children’ of academia
Even though the BJP emerged as a party in 1980, the RSS has been articulating and propagating its own ‘idea of India’ since its conception in 1925.
RSS sarsanghchalaks such as Keshav Balram Hedgewar, M.S. Golwalkar to Deendayal Upadhyaya, the founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the BJP’s political predecessor, have written books on their vision for India.
RSS ideologues say while the BJP can use electoral means to achieve its goals, the only tool at their disposal is the dissemination of ideology.
“Go back to the genesis of the RSS and its formation as a socio-cultural organisation. The idea has been to influence political life through ideology. So, they have laid a lot of focus on creating literature,” said Abhinav Pandaya, a contributing writer for the Vivekananda International Foundation and author of Radicalization in India: An Exploration.
“One can debate the quality of that work. The RSS might be accused of propagating conspiracy theories but creating literature has been a part of their tradition,” he added.
Experts say the RSS felt a greater need to articulate its ideology right after Independence, when it was accused of killing Mahatma Gandhi.
“After Partition, since Gandhi was killed by a right-winger (Nathuram Godse)… the right-wing ideology became an abusive term in the Indian discourse,” said Sangit Ragi, a Delhi University professor who runs the think-tank Centre for Study of Politics and Governance.
According to Ragi, the “hatred for the right-wing” also permeated the intellectual space with “right-wingers being mocked, demeaned, and looked down upon”.
Beyond the association of right-wing thought with radicals such as Godse, most professionals working with these think-tanks complained about their marginalisation because of state-sponsored “Nehruvian socialism”.
The early attempts to break the Left’s stranglehold
The attempts to counter this alleged marginalisation are not entirely new. Way back in 1968, veteran Jana Sangh leader Nanaji Deshmukh established the Deendayal Research Institute.
According to Ragi, most of Jana Sangh and RSS’ efforts to create an alternative intellectual ecosystem failed in countering what the Right believes was a Congress-back Left intellectual space.
“Institutes are not just buildings, you need intellectuals,” Ragi said. “Back then a very strong patron-client relationship developed, and only centrist or left-of-centre research work was allowed to prosper. So, you can create a Deendayal Institute but where do you get the intellectuals from?”
The BJP’s narrative, say experts, first began to gain traction with the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992. With many of its leaders participating in the Ram Mandir movement, the BJP began to be seen as an alternative to the Congress.
As the BJP came to power in the late 1990s, prominent journalists and public intellectuals such as Arun Shourie, Swapan Dasgupta, Kanchan Gupta and Ashok Malik began to emerge as alternative voices in the still dominant left-of-centre discourse.
They, however, only began to make some definitive inroads into India’s intellectual space after the 2002 Godhra riots in Gujarat.
Two think-tanks — India First Foundation that included those close to senior BJP leader L.K. Advani, such as J.S. Rajput, Chandan Mitra, and Ashok Malik, and Image India Foundation, floated by veteran BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi — were established in the immediate aftermath of the riots to counter the massive backlash that the BJP faced.
Their work was, however, limited to holding occasional seminars and publication of a few books. They were also beset by internal problems. A lot of the researchers working for these organisations had become disillusioned by the Advani-Joshi factionalism, said an academic working with a prominent think-tank. “Most young researchers working for these think tanks were interested only in activism and not real academic inquiry,” said the academic, who did not want to be identified.
The ‘Right’ moment
The BJP and RSS would have to wait even longer before genuine alternatives to centrist and left-of-centre think-tanks could emerge in Delhi and the rest of India.
The first big shift came in 2009. It was the year that the former chief of the Intelligence Bureau, Ajit Doval, who now serves as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s National Security Advisor, played a leading role in setting up the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF).
The think-tank was built on land donated to an RSS-affiliated organisation, the Vivekanand Kendra, by the Narasimha Rao-led Congress government.
The VIF was developed to bring together a whole set of retired bureaucrats, military officers, and diplomats to help produce policy suggestions from a practitioner’s point of view — but with a nationalistic tinge. In 2012, it was at the VIF that the anti-corruption front, comprising now Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev, was formed.
Soon after, the India Foundation was established by the RSS’ Ram Madhav, who would then go on to play a major role in the BJP’s organisational structure after the party’s 2014 Lok Sabha victory. Madhav was soon joined by Doval’s son, Shaurya Doval, and the two have built India Foundation as arguably the most mainstream right-of-centre think-tank.
The BJP’s landslide victory in 2014 also spawned a number of think-tanks that were all new schools of policy-research with a stark “nationalistic flavour”.
BJP Rajya Sabha MP Vinay Sahasrabuddhe’s Public Policy Research Centre (PPRC) and party leader Anirban Ganguly’s Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation are some of the think-tanks set up after the Modi government’s first Lok Sabha win.
The idea is simple: As the BJP makes electoral gains across the country, these think-tanks arm it with the bandwidth to win ideological wars.
“The fact is that we want to keep our grassroots work alive because that helps us win elections. But we want to keep our intellectual movement going on as well,” said Shaurya Doval. “As the right-of-centre has emerged in India, there is an attempt to make our point of view available across to a broad spectrum of people.”
VIF & India Foundation — Modi govt’s intellectual banks
One of the most important aspects of these think-tanks is that they have been providing personnel to the BJP government. People working for these organisations have often gone on to take up roles in the Modi administration.
The VIF has been at the forefront in this regard. Since the BJP came to power in 2014, a large number of people working for the organisation have been appointed by the government to significant positions. From the country’s top strategic decision-making body to the country central bank board, the VIF has its footprints across the establishment.
One-time VIF director Ajit Doval went on to become the country’s NSA while IAS officer Nripendra Misra became the principal secretary to the prime minister.
Some other prominent appointments from VIF include S. Gurumurthy to Reserve Bank of India’s Monetary Policy Board, Anil Baijal as Delhi’s lieutenant governor, V.K. Saraswat to the Niti Aayog, K.G. Suresh as the director general of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Arvind Gupta as deputy NSA, A. Surya Prakash as the chairperson of Prasar Bharti, and Arif Mohammed Khan as the governor of Kerala.
Additionally, many technical experts from VIF have joined India’s National Security Agency.
“Early in Modi’s first term, a large chunk of VIF’s members were absorbed into the NSA. It is remarkable for a think-tank to have so many of its fellows appointed to key policy-making positions to India’s nodal security agency,” Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, told ThePrint.
Much like the VIF, the India Foundation also enjoys enormous influence in the government. BJP members such as Himanta Biswa Sarma, Swapan Dasgupta, Sahasrabuddhe, Madhav, and Shaurya Doval are on its board of governors.
“We have so many of our fellows serving in executive positions at the government, that it restricts our ability to conduct as much policy research,” said Shaurya Doval.
The presence of Ram Madhav adds to the organisation’s influence.
“Your engagement with the government is great when you have a party politician heading the organisation,” said Iyer-Mitra. “Madhav knows how the party works and the right approach to influencing policy given the political constraints.”
A non-partisan platform for BJP’s politics
Some of the right-of-the-centre think-tanks routinely conduct panel discussions and book launches, providing a platform for BJP ministers to present their views on contentious political issues.
Senior BJP leaders such as Home Minister Amit Shah, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, Human Resource Development Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar have all presented the government’s position at events organised by these think-tanks.
Since many of them have senior BJP leaders and swayamsevaks as members even though they are not officially affiliated to the party, they act as effective platforms for political debates.
“Passing the Triple Talaq bill was a major milestone for the government,” said a senior BJP leader. “But the opposition was criticising it for being anti-Mulism. At this point, the government, as well as the party, felt that greater awareness was required and a public lecture should be conducted.”
“At that time, rather than asking the minority or the law ministry to organise an event on Triple Talaq, the Home Minister and BJP president Amit Shah felt it should be done by an outside agency and which is why the Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation was asked to organise it.”
Triple Talaq was not a one-off case. In the face of widespread protests on the Citizenship Amendment Act, the government has again decided to deploy its intellectual army to grapple with the unrest and spread awareness about the controversial legislation.
These think-tanks are not just meant for fire-fighting. They also act as effective communication tools for the government — routinely informing people about government policies and schemes.
The two most prominent organisations in this regard are the Public Policy Research Centre and the Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation.
For example, the PPRC has published extensively on an array of issues such as demonetisation, the impact of Fasal Bima Yojana (for crop insurance) and skill development. In poll-bound Delhi, the think-tank also came up with a report card on the performance of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in the past five years, which was released by Union minister Prakash Javadekar.
Similarly, the Mukherjee foundation also publishes study reports and articles on major policies of the BJP and the opposition-ruled states. But most starkly, it’s monthly-journal The Nationalist, which always carries the picture of the Prime Minister, often features articles by Modi, Shah, the late Arun Jaitley, Sitharaman, Bhupendra Yadav and other BJP leaders.
The journal opens with a column by Anirban Ganguly, the head of the Mukherjee foundation, where he holds forth on contemporary political debates. The column is followed by a feature called “PM Modi’s Vision” — articulating his government’s policies.
More events, less policy impact
All the big-bang events and policy analysis notwithstanding, critics allege that these think-tanks have struggled to churn out genuine policy research.
“These think-tanks do some really good events, with some very high-profile speakers… But it is still just networking,” said Iyer-Mitra. “For all of them, the tangibles are just the events, there is no real policy impact.”
According to Iyer-Mitra, what explains this is the lack of research funding is a government that believes in only centralised decision-making. He, however, also points out that the Left-leaning and centrist think-tanks were equally non-proficient when it comes to ensuring policy impact.
“Show me one shred of evidence from the past 15-20 years where any Indian think-tank has had a genuine policy impact,” Iyer-Mitra said.
Seshadri Chari, veteran RSS leader and former editor of The Organiser, told ThePrint, “Political parties are still the final arbiters of policy decisions. At best, you have bureaucrats make those decisions. Think-tanks hardly play a role here.”
‘The Right needs its own Ramachandra Guha’
Looking beyond the policy impact, India’s Right is constantly grappling with the accusation that it lacks the intellectual capacity that is required to build a “New India” — an argument a section of intellectuals and policy analysts, who belong to the Right, agree with.
“India ke right-wing ke pass jo intellectual resources hone chahiye, who abhi tak nahi hai (India’s right-wing still doesn’t possess the kind of intellectual talent it really needs),” said a prominent academic, who currently heads a right-leaning think tank.
Regardless of all their faults, the Left-leaning intellectuals still have robust theoretical and analytical rigour, argued Abhinav Pandya.
Moreover, the Right-wing intellectual is always sparring with the Left-wing, with little investment in generating its own academic agenda and discourse.
“You saw The New Yorker’s piece on India (by Dexter Filkins). It gives you only one side of the story. But I still haven’t seen a convincing point-by-point rebuttal to that piece,” Pandya said.
Several academics agreed that if the Right wants to fundamentally challenge the Left’s hegemony, it needs to do so intellectually.
“BJP has been in power for 10-15 years in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat. What did they do to build robust research and policy centres? Why just criticise JNU, why not develop another organisation that is as good?” asked the above-mentioned think-tank head.
“If you really want to counter the Left-wing’s version of Indian history, you need a historian who is as qualified as Ramachandra Guha,” he added.