On Saturday evening, India International Centre, a citadel of Delhi’s liberal establishment, was the site of an event organised by the India Foundation (IF) on the future of the India-US relationship.
Tulsi Gabbard, a Hindu member of the US Congress, was one of the speakers at the event chaired by former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal.
And it was not a one-off occasion.
Considering the range of its activities, the India Foundation has emerged as one of the most active think-tanks in the city. What makes it distinct, though, is its power-packed board, which talks of its influence in capital letters!
Railways minister Suresh Prabhu, BJP’s powerful general secretary and former Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) spokesperson Ram Madhav, minister of state (MoS) for finance Jayant Sinha, MoS commerce Nirmala Sitharaman, Rajya Sabha MP Chandan Mitra and Prasar Bharati chairperson A Surya Prakash are on the board. And the director of the foundation is Shaurya Doval, son of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.
In December, the IF organised the India Ideas Conclave in Goa where the majority of the country’s right-wing intellectual elite was present, besides Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ministers and leaders.
The idea, as many participants stated, was to create a ‘centre-right ecosystem’, which would question the established ‘left-liberal’ consensus on economy, culture and religion and polity.
The event ran into trouble when one foreign scholar castigated Islam, prompting key Muslim delegates to walk off.
The need to create an ‘alternative universe of ideas’ -- as one researcher with IF put it -- seems to be the overriding impulse of such institutes, which have close ties to the RSS.
Those associated with it believe that mainstream discourse in India has been skewed in favour of the Left; that the Congress used state patronage to favour only academics belonging to that tradition; that the media is ‘biased’; that there has to be a narrative prioritising ‘nationalism and culture’; and that 2014 is a turning point in these directions.
There is a new generation; there is a friendly government; and it is time to wage the intellectual battle through academic papers, articles, seminars, big events and setting up a parallel universe. Others contest this assumption -- since key centre-right intellectuals have had a strong presence in many established think-tanks, especially on economic and foreign policy affairs.
It is inevitable that the work of such institutes will have an impact because of access to the power structure. An article jointly written by Sinha and Shaurya Doval in an IF journal in May had many ideas on economy, infrastructure, urbanisation and other themes which have found favour with the government.
The IF is of course not unique. The Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) has already lent heavyweights to the government, including NSA Doval, principal secretary Nripendra Misra, and A Surya Prakash. Bibek Debroy, associated with VIF as the dean of the Centre for Economic Studies, was appointed as a full-time member of the Niti Aayog Monday.
The VIF is run under the ageis of the Vivekananda Kendra, which was set up by RSS leader Eknath Ranade. In 1993, the Narasimha Rao government allotted land to the Kendra in Delhi's diplomatic enclave, Chanakyapuri, where VIF came up.
It is noteworthy, however, that while they have close ties with the extended Sangh Parivar, such institutes are not affiliate organisations -- unlike say the ABVP, BMS, VHP and others.
Some other institutions share even deeper proximity. The Shyama Prasad Mookerjee Foundation works as a BJP adjunct. It is chaired by finance minister Arun Jaitley himself and operates out of 11, Ashoka Road. Its office bearers are BJP leaders and it has produced papers on issues like India-Aghanistan ties, the Tibet issue and diplomacy.
Strikingly, there appears to be a strong focus on foreign policy and security issues among these institutes. Sources told HT that experts have given Prime Minister Narendra Modi inputs before his foreign visits.
Ram Madhav, in particular, has leveraged his policy grasp as well as RSS background to play a role in foreign policy outreach.
The Sangh has a strong overseas network. The Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh operates in many countries; a lot of funding for Sangh activities comes from abroad. Madhav was in New York and then Sydney to organise this constituency of overseas supporters with Indian roots for Modi's community meetings. They are also potentially key lobbyists in other countries to advance bilateral ties.
Among other arenas, the Sangh and its supporters have clearly stepped up the battle on the intellectual field.
With a more-than-sympathetic ear of the government, policy prescriptions which will please powerful constituencies in India and abroad, greater visibility and outreach, strong presence on social media and an increasingly assertive presence on traditional media platforms, India’s right-wing intelligentsia has arrived.