As Govt Pushes Through IDSA Renaming, Experts Worry About Institute's Relevance

The Ministry of Defence’s reluctance to engage with IDSA in any meaningful manner too is an open secret in military and strategic circles.

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New Delhi: The confirmatory meeting of members of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses or IDSA, one of India’s oldest and once-prestigious military think-tanks in New Delhi, to ratify its questionable renaming after the late defence minister Manohar Parrikar is scheduled for August 16.

In keeping with the Societies Registration Act of 1860, under which the IDSA was incorporated in 1965, this imminent gathering follows a month after the skilfully engineered July 15 annual general meeting, or AGM, approved the institute’s rechristening as Manohar Parrikar IDSA by a three-fifths majority of members who constitute its general body.

Accordingly, IDSA insiders say Monday’s follow-on meeting too is expected to secure a similar ‘comfortable’ majority to retitle the Ministry of Defence (MoD)-funded think-tank through a combination of subtle ‘gerrymandering and astute manipulation’ resorted to four weeks earlier.

“Both meetings are a formality to ensure that the government’s February 2020 fiat renaming the institute is legitimately formalised,” said an IDSA member. This, he said, declining to be identified, became apparent almost immediately upon the institute’s renaming announcement, as its obliging administration swiftly changed all its signboards and letterheads, unmindful that mandated procedures needed completing before this could be formally confirmed. And, though the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the AGM from being held till mid-July, he added, decency and protocol, especially for such a prestigious institution, required that proper practices and drills be adhered to and respected.

The IDSA director general Sujan R. Chenoy, however, declined to comment on the matter. “I am not in this space (to answer any queries)” he declared on August 13.

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Meanwhile, several institute members present at the July 15 AGM publicly voiced their concern over re-naming the institute at the cacophonous assemblage, but to no avail. Proxy voting by 84 of members too was permitted, possibly for the first time, outnumbering those who were physically present at the AGM at the IDSA’s sprawling campus in New Delhi’s cantonment area. These proxy voters included military officers, diplomats and academics, amongst others.

And, in a subtly coercive move on the appointed day, and in seeming opposition to all norms of democratic behaviour, voters were required to disclose their identity on the ballot papers. This too was apparently a first; but surprisingly, despite such obvious efforts at dragooning voters, a good number of negative ballots were also cast, opposing the re-christening.

Expectedly, these were not enough to ensure that the institute’s renaming after Parrikar, India’s somewhat lacklustre defence minister for 27 months till early 2017, flopped, as it had already been arbitrarily announced early last year by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) administration. Proclaiming this directive, the Press Information Bureau or PIB stated that it was being implemented to honour Parrikar’s commitment and legacy. It was also being executed, the PIB added, to “align the vision and aspiration of the premier defence institute” with Parrikar’s contribution, but did not quantify what this was, exactly.

Although Parrikar’s personal integrity and educational qualifications – he graduated in metallurgical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai – remain undisputed, the Goa-based MP left behind no body of scholarly work on national or regional defence and security issues that entitle him to have India’s premier defence think-tank named after him. Besides, it’s widely known in military and defence circles that several of the initiatives he launched whilst in office came to nought.

Manohar Parrikar. Photo: PTI/Files

Media reports quoting senior official sources revealed that defence minister Parrikar was unaware of Modi’s surprise decision in April 2015 to acquire 36 French Dassault Rafale multi-role fighters for Rs 59,000 crore, instead of confirming the under-negotiation tender for 126 similar fighters. Of these, 108 were to have been licence built indigenously as part of the MoD’s ‘Made in India’ – or subsequent atmanirbhar – initiative to achieve self-reliance in sourcing defence equipment.

Parrikar’s other futile enterprises included simplifying the bulky, complex and largely incomprehensible Defence Procurement Procedure or DPP manual for acquiring materiel and furthering the much-touted bilateral Defence Trade and Technology Initiative or DTTI with the US to jointly develop and locally manufacture assorted military equipment. Four years later, the DPP-2020 when it was incorporated last year had become bulkier and more dense while the DTTI has simply vanished off the radar.

These glaring shortcomings, and several others during Parrikar’s short tenure at the MoD, are rarely ever mentioned publicly, as like most Indian politicians, he is now imbued with a halo of infallibility and flawlessness. This is despite him leaving the MoD, reportedly dissatisfied personally with his tenure at the ministry, to assume Goa’s chief ministership in March 2017.

Be that as it may, the objections of many IDSA members regarding the institute’s re-naming centre principally on Parrikar being a politician, and on not him individually or his debatable track record. They believe that once confirmed – almost certainly on Monday – it would permanently identify the non-aligned think-tank with a particular political party, in this instance the BJP, and cast doubts on its overall objectivity. Besides, in India’s politically surcharged and ideologically aligned milieu, there is always the possibility of a new federal government overturning this decision at a later stage, which would doubtless be a slight to Parrikar’s memory, said the earlier mentioned IDSA member.

A previous attempt to rename the institute after the late Y.B. Chavan, also Indian defence minister for four years till 1966 – that included the second war with Pakistan – was aborted precisely because he was a politician, in the interest of maintaining the institute’s detachment and nonalignment. Chavan’s overall profile too was more impressive, as he was, in turn, India’s finance, foreign and home minister during his extended political career in the Congress party.

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Furthermore, there are several non-political personages whose contributions have been significant to building up the IDSA from the time it was located in the cramped and dingy Sapru House annexe in Lutyens Delhi, before moving to the old JNU campus at Ber Sarai, and eventually to its present grand campus.

These included civil servant K.S. Subrahmanyam, who served as IDSA’s director for two seven-year terms, and retired Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, a highly decorated Indian Air Force fighter pilot who also founded and headed the Centre for Air Power Studies in Delhi. Both men left behind a reservoir of seminal strategic and military writings and lectures that greatly influenced India’s nuclear and security planning till the early 2000s.

Many IDSA members are of the view that these former IDSA heads were deserving of having the institute named after them, but in the interest of sustaining its neutrality, such indulgence was obviated. Instead, its eponymous moniker understandably remained the default option and for years the IDSA featured amongst the world’s leading think-tanks.

But with its impending name change, several analysts associated with the institute questioned whether its academic freedom, analytical objectivity and ideological neutrality could be preserved by aligning it with Parrikar and his party’s political legacy. More importantly, they speculated whether the institute would be perceived worldwide as an apolitical think-tank committed to objective scholarly analyses on domestic, sub-continental and global security-related matters.

In the meantime, the institute’s academic performance too has qualitatively waned in recent years, despite the interminable and much-hyped seminars and ‘dialogues’ with corresponding overseas institutions. The unprepossessing analysis and newspaper writings offered by its scholars, especially its senior faculty, too are a matter of proliferating intellectual concern amongst defence analysts, compared to earlier times.

It also remains unclear whether the MoD even takes serious note of the institute’s output, let alone factor its offerings into its overall security and military assessments and projections. This is despite what the institute’s founding remit was, of providing background and input for the MoD, and one it vindicated ably in its initial years.

Senior MoD sources said many institute reports on diverse military matters, defence budgeting and regional relationships were either binned or at best ignored. Some of these concerned the Defence Expenditure Review Committee’s report of 2008 and a recent study on indigenisation efforts by India’s nine Defence Public Sector Undertakings to progress the government’s atmanirbhar effort.

And though what passes for India’s strategic community, comprising mostly retired service officers, never tires of bemoaning the lack of MoD expertise in the timely execution of military acquisitions, endeavours by the institute at the ministry’s behest to design a training module for this purpose too failed. Implemented in collaboration with the US’s Defence Acquisition University, the proposed project was nixed by the MoD after being submitted at a time when delays in materiel procurements were interminable and repeatedly criticised by successive parliamentary defence committees.

Alongside, the MoD’s reluctance to engage with IDSA in any meaningful manner too is an open secret in military and strategic circles. Lately, MoD officials had reportedly almost stopped participating in discussions, seminars and interactions with the industry organised by the institute or even on matters of immediate concern to the ministry, except occasionally when called upon to deliver a keynote address or something analogous.

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Administratively too, the institute faces internal hurdles and personnel problems.

Since 2017, for instance, civilian scholars and the institute’s non-military staff confront an uncertain future over matters of pay and their terms of employment, including tenures. Many of the affected scholars and staff, demoralised by this prospect, are believed to be seeking legal recourse which, in turn, threatens to adversely impact the Institutes overall morale and output. Many distinguished scholars and specialists, who over decades leant gravitas to the institute, too have been summarily dismissed in recent months, further diluting standards.

Retired service officers who man the administrative posts and constitute a sizeable section of the existing complement of scholars, however, remain unaffected by these restrictive and patently unfair moves. They also had little or no sympathy for the ‘civilians’, most of whom have spent several years at the institute, but with limited prospects or recourse to redressal had no alternative but to quit.

In conclusion, it is up to the MoD to ensure that the institute plays a more consequential role in shaping India’s defence discourse than it has in recent years. And for its part, the institute needs to realise that without cultivating the spirit of enterprise, the outcome is a waste of time and general stagnation.