How Ties With The Think Tanks Vivekananda International Foundation and India Foundation Enhance Ajit Doval’s Influence

Ajit Doval is among the very few to constantly have the ear of a prime minister who has centralised power more than any of his predecessors in decades. vijay verma / pti
05 November, 2017

In “Undercover,” the cover story for the September 2017 issue of The Caravan, Praveen Donthi profiled the National Security Adviser Ajit Doval. In the piece, Donthi reported on the NSA’s ties to the Vivekananda International Foundation and the India Foundation. The NSA is the founding director of the former, while his son, Shaurya, is a director of the latter. The two think tanks share close ties with powerful leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—the VIF’s ties to the RSS are an open secret, and in addition to Shaurya, the India Foundation counts among its directors the cabinet ministers Nirmala Sitharaman and Suresh Prabhu, as well the BJP’s national general secretary, Ram Madhav.

In the following extract from the profile, Donthi reports on how links to the two organisations contribute to strengthening Doval’s influence within the current dispensation.

In 2009, the Vivekananda Kendra, founded by an RSS leader in the 1970s, set up a think tank named the Vivekananda International Foundation. Doval was appointed its founding director. According to the VIF website, he spoke at the inauguration of bringing “the intellectual community in consonance with the spirit of nationalism,” and of encouraging “young, talented research scholars to probe the depths of research in various genre of topics which are very vital to the national interests … so as to elevate India to her right place in the world.” That declaration notwithstanding, Doval went on to fill the organisation largely with retired security bureaucrats and diplomats. The VIF’s employees have also included the journalist Rajeev Sharma. Nitin Gokhale is currently one of its visiting fellows.

The VIF declares itself an “independent, non-partisan institution,” but its links with the RSS are an open secret. A political activist associated with the RSS told me the organisation is “emotionally linked with the Sangh Parivar.” He added that Swaminathan Gurumurthy, a leader of the RSS-affiliated Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, was a major force behind the VIF’s creation. Doval was a natural choice to lead it. “When Doval was in the IB, all of us were concerned about the cross-border terrorism,” the political activist told me. “Slowly, that bond of association found a structure. Familiarity of goal and thinking was always there.”

At around the time that the VIF was established, Doval’s son, Shaurya, returned to India after a career as an investment banker abroad. Soon he became a director of a think tank of his own—the India Foundation. His main partner in this was Ram Madhav, then a national spokesperson for the RSS. The organisation set to work behind the scenes in Delhi and elsewhere in support of Modi’s prime ministerial campaign.

In late 2010, the RSS was forced onto the defensive after one of its leaders, Indresh Kumar, was charged as a conspirator in the 2007 bombing of a Sufi shrine in Ajmer. The organisation responded with massive protests in defence of Kumar, and also of Pragya Singh and Aseemanand, two RSS-linked activists charged in relation to the Ajmer blast and two other bomb attacks between 2007 and 2008.

In April 2011, the VIF organised a two-day seminar on “black money.” The attendees included Doval and Gurumurthy, the god-man Baba Ramdev, the social activist Anna Hazare, the anti-corruption campaigner Arvind Kejriwal, the politician Subramanian Swamy, the retired police officer Kiran Bedi and the RSS pracharak KN Govindacharya. Soon afterwards, Hazare and Ramdev began much-publicised fasts against corruption, accusing the ruling government of having abetted it. These sparked a massive protest movement that proved disastrous for the government, and provided the BJP, the RSS’s electoral offspring, with a crucial platform for its successful 2014 election campaign. Kejriwal, Swamy, Bedi and Govindacharya were all among the movement’s leadership.

When questioned about links between the movement and the VIF, Doval told the Indian Express that “we had no role” in the agitation. But, he said, “Corruption and black money are draining India. We not at all feel defensive about talking about these issues.” Doval denied that the organisation was connected to the RSS.

Around this time, media reports mentioned that Doval was under IB surveillance. In an interview with Outlook, he said that he knew nothing about it, and that the IB “is only doing its duty if it’s watching me—it’s the eyes and ears of the government.” Asked of the Congress’s assertions that he was in cahoots with the BJP, he responded, “How can I be in cahoots with the BJP? One can be in cahoots with the ISI or CIA. BJP is a mainstream party like the Congress or SP. … The level public discourse has sunk to is disturbing. Don’t forget I’m the highest decorated officer.”

In April 2011, a delegation led by a senior RSS leader from Punjab, set up by a former Congress MP from the state, met the editor of a leading newspaper, an old friend of Gurumurthy’s who had not been enthusiastic about the anti-corruption protests. Describing this meeting to me, the editor said that the delegation told him, “Look, the cases against Indresh-ji and others are reaching a conclusive point. You have to support us editorially with this agitation to push back.” When he refused, the editor said, “they started a whisper campaign to malign me.”

The editor described the anti-corruption protests as an operation run from the VIF. “Some of the senior bureaucrats from home ministry and intelligence officials were also clandestinely part of it,” he said. “Doval was leading it, and probably this was his most successful operation.”

IN AN INTERVIEW in January 2014, when asked of his rumoured connections to the BJP, Doval responded, “I am not a member of any political party, have never been. I don’t think I’d like to accept any position in any government.”

After the BJP-led coalition won the general election a few months later, speculation about the NSA post settled on a handful of candidates: Kanwal Sibal, the former foreign secretary; Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s ambassador to the United States; Hardeep Singh Puri, formerly India’s representative to the United Nations; and Doval, acknowledged as the favourite.

A former IB chief told me that it came down to Doval and Puri, a friend of the soon-to-be cabinet minister Arun Jaitley. “Hardeep might have a better sense of humour and likes to laugh at himself,” he said. “I don’t think Doval likes to do that. Both have very strong lobbies in the newspapers too. If you are looking to impress and influence people, then Hardeep is the man. Doval is a doer.”

Doval assumed office in late May. Shishir Gupta, reporting the appointment, wrote, “Trusted by Sangh Parivar, finance minister Arun Jaitley and home minister Rajnath Singh, Doval has also worked behind the scenes for Modi and the BJP since his retirement from IB.” Swaminathan Gurumurthy tweeted that Doval “is the contemporary version of chatrapati shivaji and [Bhagat] Singh”—both beloved of Hindu nationalists.

Two other members of the VIF were appointed to serve under Modi too. The retired civil servant Nripendra Misra became the principal secretary, and PK Mishra, a principal secretary to Modi during his reign in Gujarat, became an additional principal secretary. Between them, the former VIF men now occupy three of the highest positions in the prime minister’s office.

Doval maintained a connection with the VIF. “At some point in 2014, one of the senior members at the VIF was being badly treated” by his peers in the BJP, a security analyst familiar with the think tank told me. “He kept complaining to Doval. And one fine day, Doval landed up at his office and sat there for an hour or so. ‘These guys watching you and troubling, they will get the message that you are close to the PMO,’ he told the person. The harassing did stop after that.” The episode reinforced Doval’s reputation for loyalty to those close to him. A former ambassador also told me that Doval is known as a “doston ka dost”—a true friend.

“In theory it has a hotline to the NSA,” a strategic analyst at a Delhi think tank told me of the VIF, adding that the organisation is a port of call for many foreign delegations.

The general consensus—among those in the government, think tanks and the media—is that Doval has a hold over the home ministry, defence ministry and the ministry of external affairs. Rajnath Singh, the home minister, has accepted a more limited role than his position traditionally accords. The defence ministry has lacked stable ministerial leadership, with two changes of minister already in Modi’s term. A high-ranking former cabinet bureaucrat told me that although “Sushma Swaraj is a competent person,” as the minister of external affairs she “has been made more or less a cipher.”

Doval’s sphere of influence is enhanced by his links to the VIF, and also to the India Foundation. In 2015, the Economic Times reported that the India Foundation hosts weekly “closed door sessions on high policy issues.” The organisation has arranged gatherings of foreign ambassadors, hosted foreign dignitaries, and helped organise events on Modi’s foreign visits, including his rally in New York’s Madison Square Garden in 2014. One bureaucrat I spoke to compared the foundation with the National Advisory Council of the previous government.

Shaurya Doval remains one of the India Foundation’s directors, even as he leads Indian operations for Gemini Financial Services, an investment fund chaired by a Saudi prince. The Economic Times report called him “an increasingly influential player in shaping Modi Sarkar’s policy thinking.” Ram Madhav, also an India Foundation director, is now the BJP’s national general secretary. On the list of directors alongside Shaurya and Madhav are the cabinet minister Suresh Prabhu, the ministers of state Nirmala Sitharaman [now the defence minister], Jayant Sinha and MJ Akbar, and other heavyweights linked to the BJP and the RSS.

When I visited the India Foundation’s address on Delhi’s prestigious Hailey Road in July, I did not find a nameplate on the door. A former official of the ministry of external affairs who is familiar with the foundation told me it is opaque about its finances. The organisation mentions income from subscriptions to its publications, the former official said, “but nobody knows about the India Foundation journals to fetch them so much funding. … I haven’t seen any evidence of good research yet. What they have is the ability to organise big events.” When I put this to Ram Madhav, he responded that the organisation has nothing to hide, and is funded “through sponsorships of corporates for the events.”

On foreign policy, a defining factor in Doval’s reach has been the equation between him and the foreign secretary, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. As the ambassador to China and then the United States, Jaishankar received Modi on several official trips, including his first visit to the United States as prime minister. Modi removed the incumbent foreign secretary to make room for Jaishankar in January 2015, and granted him a year-long extension on his two-year term early this year. Numerous people familiar with the ministry of external affairs told me that Modi’s great confidence in Jaishankar makes him the most powerful foreign secretary in a long time. Some of Doval’s detractors told me Jaishankar might replace him as the NSA if Modi is re-elected in 2019.

Doval, who holds the rank of a minister of state, is officially a superior of Jaishankar’s, a ministry secretary. But while Doval is Modi’s NSA, “it is his lack of foreign policy experience and his inability to move beyond the ‘tactical’ that had created a void which Jaishankar will now fill,” the journalist Siddharth Varadarajan wrote at the time of the foreign secretary’s appointment. In government circles, Doval has been nicknamed the daroga, or station-house officer, of South Block—the premises of the ministry of external affairs and the prime minister’s office. Another nickname making the rounds is “National Security Advisor (Pakistan)”—an insinuation that Doval’s understanding of other countries is non-existent.

There have been occasional suggestions of friction between the NSA and the foreign secretary in the jostle for influence. However, a former official of the ministry of external affairs who knows Jaishankar well said that these were overblown. He summarised Jaishankar’s approach to his work as “You tell me a desired solution, I will try to find a way to get there.” That, he continued, allowed the foreign secretary and the NSA to establish “a good modus vivendi.”

But the former official did cite one point on which the two have differed. The government, he said, has started to directly sponsor think tanks, and Doval and Jaishankar disagreed on which ones should qualify for funds. “Doval and MJ Akbar believe only right-wing think tanks like the VIF and India Foundation should get the funding,” the former official said. “The foreign secretary thinks there should be a wide array. … But there is a broad agreement that the think tanks need to be cultivated.”

This is an extract from “Undercover,” the cover story for the September 2017 issue of The Caravan, by Praveen Donthi. The full story is available here.