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Centre Takes ‘Proxy’ Voting Route To Get IDSA Name Change Approved Amid Opposition

Many members insist that the institute’s autonomy, which was a ‘Laxman rekha’ that both sides respected, has been breached.

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New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government on Thursday carried the day with the motion to prefix the name of former BJP leader and defence minister Manohar Parrikar to the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, one of India’s premier think-tanks, but not before several of its members, including former directors, opposed the move. They expressed “sadness and dismay” at the decision of the Union Cabinet, saying ideally the Executive Council alone was empowered to take the decision but it was bypassed in the matter.

The Wire had earlier reported that the former defence minister’s name was added to the 56-year-old institution’s name by the Union government without consulting or seeking the approval of its Executive Council, as mandated by the Societies Act.

Since the institute is funded by the Ministry of Defence, the Centre had in February last year decided to name it after Parrikar, following his demise. As the Executive Council had not been consulted, it later left the final decision in the matter to the general body, which finally met today after a lapse of over a year.

Since defence minister Rajnath Singh, who as president of the IDSA chairs the proceedings, was absent, former Union home secretary and Executive Council member G.K. Pillai conducted the proceedings. Over the three hours, for which the AGM took place, the members discussed the issue of name change and also voted to appoint three members to Council, while four others were elected unopposed.

As reported by The Wire earlier, the key item on the agenda of the AGM was the renaming. Several EC members had in the past objected to the move, saying while they respected Parrikar, it was best that the IDSA was left just as it was. They had also suggested that a chair could have been established in IDSA after Parrikar, or better still the National Defence University could have been named after Parrikar to honour him better. The institute, it was also argued, is a world-renowned think-tank and a change in name would only cause ‘confusion’ since few outside India were aware of Parrikar.

However, during the AGM, the majority of the members expressed the view that since a decision on changing the name had already been taken, it should be continued.

A former director of IDSA, while speaking to The Wire, said: “It was a slightly animated meeting in which a number of speakers raised the issue of autonomy. There was a division among the members: one constituency felt it was not appropriate to change the IDSA’s name but at the end, by citing society rules, they carried the day.”

Issue was not with Parrikar, but absence of procedure’

The issue of the IDSA’s autonomy and powers was discussed threadbare. “Of the speakers, while around 7-9 spoke against the move to change the name, around 12-14 would have spoken in its favour. Many expressed their disappointment at the name change and the main thing they said was that it was not about Parrikar, rather it was about the procedure – the way the name of the premier think-tank was changed by the Government of India,” the former director said.

It was repeatedly said during the meeting that the Union Cabinet has decided to change the name, but, the former director said, “Clearly the Cabinet was not given the right advice or inputs.” He said while a finance institute has also been named after former Union minister Arun Jaitley, following his demise, and likewise, there is a foreign services institutes named after former external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, the point that IDSA is not a similar institute was made quite emphatically by some of the speakers.

“The character of the IDSA is very standalone,” he said, adding, “there were at least three former directors of the IDSA who expressed their sadness at the turn of events. The sadness was that whatever rules or conventions we had were violated. The autonomy we had in the IDSA was a ‘Laxman rekha’ which both sides respected. That has been breached.”

Manohar Parrikar. Photo: Facebook/Manohar Parrikar

Convention goes for a toss as proxy votes make it count

For voting on the motion, the proxy system was allowed for the first time. In the end, a majority of votes were proxy votes that carried the name of the voter on the ballot paper.

An outgoing EC member and Professor Emeritus at Jawaharlal Nehru University, S.D. Muni, said: “In the AGM they [Union government] saw through the name change, with almost 100 votes. Only around 30 votes were cast against the motion as they had mobilised everything.”

However, he added that while the debate was all opposition, the proxy votes – almost 70-80 – saw the motion go through. “And then some votes were added in favour of the name change because they had mobilised the voters. People who have never been coming to the meeting came for it. There were orders to them to this effect. We knew that this would happen,” Muni said.

On the issue of membership of the Executive Council too, the professor said, there was a debate and it became clear that the Union government wanted some of the members to exit. He insisted that the voting was most shabby. “In a proxy vote, you have to sign the ballot before dropping it in the box. So, everything is disclosed and then when the government calls you and asks you to vote in a particular manner, there are few who act differently.”

Another Executive Council member pointed out that normally, the convention has been that “we have not had these type of elections”.

“A Council member would serve two years and then he or she would be invited to serve another two years if they wished to. It was all done in a very polite and courteous kind of way – that has changed quite a bit. There is no dignity in what is happening now,” the member said.

Four appointments made unopposed, three through contest

Another former Executive Council member pointed out that there was voting for three of the candidates seeking election to the Council. One of these was for the post kept for people from the media, the second for academicians and the third for the ‘others’ category.

The position kept for a person from the media was won by former BJP MP Tarun Vijay. He is also the former editor of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s Hindi weekly, Panchjanya. He defeated well-known economist G. Balachandran, who is also a consultant at the IDSA and uncle of US vice-president Kamala Harris.

The position for the academician category saw a contest between Professor Muni, who was seeking a second term, and another JNU professor, K.P. Vijaylakshmi, with the latter winning. During the AGM, ti was pointed out that Vijaylakshmi was the first woman in 14 years to contest for the post.

Tradition retained as slots for Defence services witness withdrawals by contestants

The IDSA’s Executive Council also has three posts kept for defence services. These go to retired three-star officers – whose ranks are air marshal, lieutenant general and vice-admiral or above.

So in this category, Admiral Shekhar Sinha and Air Marshal V.K. ‘Jimmy’ Bhatia were seeking a second term. They were both elected unopposed. There was an opponent against Bhatia, Air Marshal P.K. Mehra, but he withdrew.

In the case of the Army too, there was just one name on Thursday, as against two names that had been provided in the list that was earlier released. The withdrawal of contenders, a former member pointed out, was in keeping with the tradition of service officers not getting into a contest for the Executive Council membership.

Finally, for the Army post, Lieutenant General Rakesh Sharma was elected unopposed as Lt Gen Satish Dua withdrew. Sharma replaces Lt Gen Prakash Menon, whose term expired.

In the Indian Foreign Service category, Swashpawan Singh, former secretary to th vice-president of India, has been replaced by former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia, Ashok Sajjanhar.

Finally, in the ‘others’ category, which was represented by former Union home secretary G.K. Pillai, the new incumbent is Jayant Mishra from the Indian Revenue Service.