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The Jaishankars blur the lines between the ministry of external affairs and Reliance-funded ORF

S Jaishankar (left) spoke at the 2020 Raisina Dialogue, co-hosted by ORF, a few months after his son, Dhruva, was hired by the think tank. In 2017, when Jaishankar was the foreign secretary and his son was with Brookings India, Dhruva said his father had never made an appearance under the aegis of his employer as part of a “firewall” against conflicts of interest. Shahbaz Khan/ PTI
31 December, 2020

When Dhruva Jaishankar was a fellow at Brookings India, in 2017, I sent him questions for a story I was reporting on the think tank for The Wire. His father, S Jaishankar, was then the foreign secretary, and I asked Dhruva what any diligent journalist would under the circumstances: Did his simultaneous position as a private foreign-policy professional and the son of the country’s top diplomat present any conflicts of interest? “Any potential conflicts of interest are easily navigated by preserving a firewall between my professional and personal lives,” he wrote back. “For example, Brookings India is the only major Indian foreign policy think tank at which the current foreign secretary has not made a speech or appearance.”

Jaishankar was appointed the minister of external affairs in May 2019, and Dhruva joined Observer Research Foundation that September, as the director of its new US initiative, with a base in Washington, DC. In January 2020, Jaishankar appeared in his official capacity at an ORF event to launch a book co-authored by the think tank’s president, Samir Saran. Both father and son were speakers that same month at the Raisina Dialogue, a showpiece annual geopolitical forum organised jointly by ORF and the ministry of external affairs. In September, when Jaishankar launched a book of his own, The India Way, the think tank hosted an online discussion to commemorate the event, with the minister in conversation with Saran. The firewall the Jaishankars had once maintained was crumbling, if not entirely gone.

Jaishankar’s tenure as foreign secretary saw a major scaling up of partnerships between the ministry and non-governmental think tanks. ORF, entrusted with the Raisina Dialogues, was a favoured partner. The think tank shouldered a large share of the cost and organisational weight for the event, and the ministry contributed the stamp of diplomatic officialdom and some funding. Since the first Dialogue, in 2016, the combination has drawn presidents, prime ministers, admirals, generals and all manner of powerful people to the forum, to be hosted in an opulence that the ministry alone had never achieved. In the exchange, ORF gets to advertise itself on a grander stage than any it has had before, and the government gets to polish up its image before the global elite.

The fact that this is all heavily subsidised by the country’s richest corporation, which has every reason to curry favour with the government, goes largely unsaid. ORF was set up in the early 1990s under the watch of Dhirubhai Ambani, and Reliance Industries Limited has been by far its largest donor over the years. The think tank avows its independence, but it remains deeply tied to Reliance both financially and operationally—as my story on ORF for this magazine in 2019 revealed. After nearly three decades of exercising influence over government policies behind the scenes, ORF is now increasingly an overt agent in Indian diplomacy as well. This is clear in the Raisina Dialogues, but also in ORF’s foray into the United States. And the Jaishankars stand right in the middle of this entanglement.