At the recently concluded annual general body meeting of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), the flavour of the discussion was the think tank’s autonomy. The meeting discussed the resolution on renaming the institute, by affixing Manohar Parrikar to its existing nomenclature. The Narendra Modi government had changed the name last year itself without consulting the institute’s executive council. Later, the government left it to the general body to take the final call.
Since its inception in 1965, the IDSA has had a tenuous relationship with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) that has suzerainty over the institute, but at the same time is expected to respect its autonomy. By the end of the annual general meeting (AGM) on 15 July, its autonomy might have taken a body blow by the decisions of the very members who are supposed to protect it. The soul of late K. Subrahmanyam, the architect of the IDSA’s structural relationship with the MoD, could be restless over the changes thrust upon his brainchild.
IDSA and its structure
The IDSA draws its autonomy from the fact that it is registered under the Societies Registration Act, 1860. The Memorandum of Association provides the legal framework to conduct the affairs of the institute. It is managed by an executive council that consists of elected and ex-officio members. The president, who by convention is the defence minister, is elected for two years and has a tenure that is co-terminus with the EC. The defence secretary, foreign secretary, director general, and deputy director general of the IDSA are the ex-officio members. In addition, there are seven elected members who, by convention, represent the three armed forces, Indian Foreign Service, media, academia, and ‘others’ of any background.
The IDSA director general is also the chief executive officer (CEO) who looks after the affairs of the institute under the general control, superintendence, and directions of the executive council and is also appointed by the council. The appointments have been almost always finalised after a due process of search and selection. But in 2019, the MoD bypassed the executive council and, through a process that does not apply to the IDSA, appointed the current director general, who is a distinguished diplomat. The appointment is technically illegal and has been questioned by some members of the council.
Since the IDSA depends on financial support from the MoD, the institute benefits from a government appointee in place and better access to the defence minister. Expectedly, the leveraging of power that is endemic to bureaucratic practices has made itself felt. Financial control is, in practice, the strongest form of bureaucratic control and a prime instrument of threat to autonomy. Though as an independent and registered society, the IDSA has its accounts and auditors, the MoD Finance has for long exerted control over how the funds allotted by the institute are spent. This is an overstretch that has remained a point of friction. It can easily be resolved by the defence minister or the defence secretary. But probably, they are aware that it would result in greater autonomy to the IDSA and consequent reduction in the MoD’s control.
The bureaucratic meddling
It is nobody’s case that the current or past defence ministers have failed to rectify the situation. Instead, it is primarily because the MoD bureaucracy will not let it happen. Currently, the issue of pay scales to be adjusted and guided by the 7th Central Pay Commission has remained unresolved for over four years now due to the MoD Finance seeking to impose control and keeping files in orbit. This has resulted in impacting adversely the morale of the researchers and staff, and is also acting as an impediment to attracting good talent.
The only hope is that the defence minister finds time to fix the avoidable issue of bureaucratic control over the IDSA that got further deepened in early 2020 when the institute was, for the first time, listed as an entity under the department of defence in the Second Schedule of the Allocation of Business Rules. Though the defence minister has verbally assured the IDSA executive council that the modification of Business Rules, 1961 will not adversely affect its autonomy, it may be used in the future to enhance control because, technically, the IDSA no longer enjoys an independent existence and has become part of the government, which it was not earlier. That is a major difference.
What must be acknowledged and understood is that for the defence minister, the IDSA’s autonomy is a low-priority issue. This is what the bureaucracy that controls file movements and notings exploits. Nothing, however, can justify the attitude of former defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who simply shelved all proposals regarding the extension of services of several distinguished defence experts at the institute.
In February 2020, the Narendra Modi government announced the naming of three institutions in memory of BJP leaders and former ministers — Arun Jaitely, Manohar Parrikar, and Sushma Swaraj. The MoD press note stated: “It will align the vision and aspiration of the premier defence Institute with the contribution of the former Raksha Mantri and Padma Bhushan awardee [Parrikar].” The government’s decision was intimated through a written communication that was immediately implemented by the IDSA director general in terms of signage and identification without the executive council meeting. Overnight, in public domain, IDSA was renamed except the decision had no legal sanction.
Legally, the issue is complicated. Section 12 of the Registration of Societies Act says that renaming can only be done by the general body over two sittings separated over a month. In the first sitting, proxy votes are also permitted and in both meetings, the resolution has to be passed by 60 per cent majority.
With Covid-19 intervening from March 2020, the issue of legally implementing the government’s decision was delayed and the executive council met online in May 2020 when some members objected to the renaming and forwarded the required resolution to the AGM. Citing the pandemic and the difficulty of getting a date from the defence minister, the AGM was finally scheduled only for 15 July 2021.
At the AGM, apart from routine administrative issues, two agenda items were notable. First, the renaming; second item pertained to the pending election to the executive council, which was also inordinately delayed last year. Unfortunately, both these agenda points triggered activities that were anathema to the fundamental ethos of the IDSA. Politics seemed to have entered the portals of a hallowed apolitical institution. This was not the intention of the political leadership. It was the fallout of bureaucratic meddling and lapses.
Government decisions are parsed through the regulatory frameworks. In this case, it should have been done at the Cabinet Secretariat, MoD, and IDSA levels. It is apparent that due diligence has not been done and it is a case of ‘yes men’ implementing political decisions, disregarding laws and rules, and being confident that the members can be expected to rubber stamp their designs and desires.
The last known attempt at renaming the IDSA came in the 1980s. Y. B. Chavan’s name had figured but the idea of naming a national defence think tank after a politician was considered as symbolically repugnant to its independent nature and intellectual integrity. This time around, the press note stated: “It will align the vision and aspiration of the premier defense Institute with the contribution of the former Raksha Mantri”. To all those, including the author, who had the privilege of interacting with Manohar Parrikar, he was indeed an exceptional political leader who, in a short time, did a lot to bring about changes in the MoD. The objection is not because of Parrikar as a person, it is because he was a politician. A fundamental principle that symbolically preserves the autonomy of such institutions seems to have been lost. Times had changed.
The lobbying before the AGM
In the run-up to the AGM, the IDSA administration sensed the possibility of not getting the 60 per cent majority for passage of the resolution. What followed, according to people aware of the development, was a naked display of lobbying orchestrated by the administration that was based on two narratives. One, if the agenda was not passed, the government would be embarrassed. Two, failure to pass the agenda may result in the MoD denying funds. The members were being asked to kill autonomy to save the institute. Bureaucratic lapses mutated into saving the face of the government with a threat thrown in to boot. The administration was clearly in league with the MoD to further a political agenda. Autonomy took a hit. Expectedly, the resolution was passed with a considerable majority and awaits the second round in August 2021.
Accompanying the lobbying on the name change resolution was an attempt to fill the executive council with individuals who could be supportive of the government’s view. The perceived orientation of members in the running of the institute, something that hardly mattered before, now took the front seat. The administration identified and approached individuals to stand for elections and even made unconcealed attempts to persuade members eligible for re-election to stand down. It was hinted that it was what the defence minister had desired. The administration largely succeeded, except in the case of the three armed Services that stood their ground and preserved the tradition of being elected unopposed. It appeared that the armed forces had no company to speak of when it came to the belief in maintaining value systems.
Overall, the recent developments at the IDSA have witnessed the scaffolding of political-bureaucratic power undermining the autonomy of a globally renowned think tank. Previously, the danger to autonomy was from a nexus between the MoD and the director general, and the consequent bypassing of the executive council. Now, with the packing of the council with the favorites of the establishment, a major source of resistance to defend autonomy could get progressively weakened.
Autonomy for the IDSA stands for independent decision-making of its affairs. Independence implies that the generating and projecting of strategic ideas are removed from being tainted by the ideologies of domestic politics. It also means that national security interests should never be subordinated to narrow party interests. Attempts to diminish the separateness with the political power of the day is an assault on autonomy.
The MoD and the IDSA are no longer separate. Political and bureaucratic power has exercised and displayed its strength. However, the members can still change their minds at the confirmatory annual general meeting that has to follow in August. It will amount to a symbolic gesture, but the voices for autonomy, even if unheeded, would have been expressed.
Autonomy can be preserved only when the forces of control from the MoD are held in check. On the contrary, these forces have been unleashed. Autonomy stands no chance.
Lt Gen (retd) Dr Prakash Menon is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat; and former Member, Executive Council, IDSA. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)