Five-year-old Vivekananda International Foundation, or VIF, may be the least well-known of New Delhi think tanks, but has provided the new prime minister, Narendra Modi, with two key aides: National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Principal Secretary Nripendra Misra. While Doval, a former cop, was the director of VIF till last week, Misra, a former bureaucrat, was a member of its executive council. A think tank couldn't have got a bigger endorsement of its intellectual capital.
What exactly does VIF do? It pits itself as a "non-partisan institution that promotes quality research and in-depth studies". VIF focuses on neighbourhood studies, international relations and diplomacy, and national security and strategic issues. It also works in the field of "historical and civilisational studies", and opines on issues like Kashmir, Wendy Doniger's "anti-Hindutva" books, and freedom fighters who were sidelined in the "non-violent narrative of the Indian freedom movement". These appear to be the first hints of the organisation's purported pro-right leaning.
Take, for example, Senior Fellow Makkhan Lal's views on the controversy over Doniger's book, The Hindus: "This out-of-court settlement between Penguin, a giant in the publishing industry, and Dina Nath Batra, a practising Hindu, has prompted the pseudo-secularist and anti-Hindu activists to indulge in their old game - Hindu bashing in the name of freedom of expression and artistic creativity." The theme of "Hindu-bashing" finds mention in quite a few articles, including Joint Director Prabhat P Shukla's 'Verdict 2014: Piercing the Veil of Secularism'. "The backlash," Shukla says, "is against the unfair treatment of Hindus over the decades, and in particularly egregious form in the last decade." Some articles, like Research Fellow Anirban Ganguly's 'Man and Environment in India: Past Traditions and Present Challenges', also speak about the innate character of Hindu religion to be environmentally conscious, traditions that can be traced back to the Vedas and Arthashastra.
VIF's alleged links with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, seem to be a matter of much debate, especially because both RSS and VIF hail Vivekananda as their ultimate leader. "Is it a crime to be a nationalist?" asks KG Suresh, senior fellow and editor, VIF. "We are affiliated only to the Vivekananda Kendra and Rock Memorial and we neither support nor are against any other organisation." Seshadri Chari, former editor of RSS mouthpiece The Organiser and now a member of Bharatiya Janata Party's foreign policy wing, also denies any association with VIF. "We have no constitutional linkage or ideological binding to this think tank." Maroof Raza, consultant and strategic affairs expert of Times Now, has attended only a couple of events at VIF, and says that though the RSS ties were uttered under breath, there were no clear right-wing tendencies on display. "Since what none of the other think tanks is producing is terribly exciting, VIF appears to be the one that is churning out relatively responsible research," Raza says.
Suresh insists that VIF is completely apolitical. "It means that our research is conducted independent of the government at the centre." He says VIF supported the land exchange deals with Bangladesh that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance Government favoured. "We supported it despite the fact that the Opposition in Parliament was against it," he says. Before I can ask the question, Suresh says that Doval and Misra's appointments had nothing to do with VIF and "they were appointed because of their calibre".
VIF first made news in 2011 and 2012 when it was reported that the think tank was instrumental in bringing together Team Anna (Hazare, Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi) and yoga guru Baba Ramdev through an event it organised. While Bedi was unavailable, Ramdev's media manager offered no comment. Kejriwal aide Prashant Bhushan says he has no recollection of VIF bringing about this alliance.
VIF is located in Chanakyapuri, New Delhi's diplomatic enclave. On one side is the Asian Development Bank and on the other, a Kathak centre run by the Sangeet Natak Academy. Spread over 1.19 acres, the building has four floors across two wings, and a basement with a large parking area and a spanking new library. Though the building was inaugurated in 2009 (the land was allotted by the PV Narasimha Rao government in 1993), it still carries a sense of newness. The white marble on the floor doesn't bear any sign of wear and tear.
The main foyer has a statue of Swami Vivekananda, with his right hand pointing to the sky. In the lobby, a plaque says that the building was inaugurated by Justice MN Venkatachaliah and Mata Amritanandamayi. The portrait of RSS's Eknath Ranade, who founded the Vivekananda Kendra and Rock Memorial to which VIF is affiliated, is displayed with pride near the plaque. Next to the lift, a model of the Kanyakumari Rock Memorial gathers dust.
Suresh walks me through the second floor of the building, through empty cubicles which are meant to be occupied by young researchers. "They're away for summer vacations," he explains. There are roughly 10 scholars on a rotating payroll. The floor also houses a 200-seat auditorium. The third floor has a conference room, the largest among nearly four in the building, and the office of the director. It was from here that Doval ran VIF. The office will now be held by former army chief N C Vij.
Vij isn't the only heavyweight from the armed forces on VIF's advisory and executive board; others include V N Sharma (former army chief), S K Sinha and S Krishnaswamy (former Air Force chief). In addition, former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal and former home secretary Anil Baijal have found places in VIF, presumably because of Doval's network of high-profile bureaucrats. "VIF came into existence because concerned citizens, who felt the need for a platform to harness their vast experience and expertise, came together to suggest policies. But yes, Doval was instrumental in putting together our panel of experts," explains Suresh. Of course, the common thread is "Vivekananda's vision for a strong, prosperous, stable India".
Apart from the newness, the other striking feature of the building is the silence, devoid of even the slightest hum of the many computers that dot the workstations. Passing by Pakistan and Afghanistan expert Sushant Sareen's office, Suresh elaborates, in hushed tones, that the entire place is structured to enable scholars and experts to research, think and write in peace. So the question of peeking in to ask him about his experience of working here doesn't arise.
After the cafeteria on the first-floor, Suresh walks me to the library in the basement. Modi's face adorns most of the magazines on the stand. Other shelves lie bare. "We are still in the process of stocking up and cataloguing most of the books. Plus it's largely an e-library, with over 5,000 articles and 400 books so far," adds Suresh. The one section that catches the eye is the one on foreign affairs, with large volumes of public opinion trends on Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Suresh then hands me a pamphlet which I realise is the annual report of VIF for 2012-13. It shows an income of Rs 1.9 crore, a large chunk of which is from donations, and a grant of Rs 2 lakh from the foreign ministry. The income is down by almost Rs 1 crore from the previous year. Still, it has provided not one but two senior functionaries for the prime minister's office.