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Tuesday, Nov 30, 2021
Outlook.com
Defence

Mock Fights And Boy Scouts

IDSA is in self-destruct mode. Infighting, plain incompetence and an autocratic boss kills India’s premier defence think tank.

Mock Fights 
And Boy Scouts
Mock Fights And Boy Scouts
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53
India's most famous think tank on security affairs, the New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (idsa), is in a soup. Established in November 1965 with a charter to initiate studies and research on problems of national security and to provide vital inputs to the government, idsa now presents a picture of intellectual decay and plummeting credibility. There are now signs that the government has finally decided to take the broom to the institute. The Ministry of Defence (MoD), which bankrolls idsa to the tune of Rs 3.5 crore annually, has withheld the last quarterly tranche of funds to it. This follows growing concern in the MoD over idsa's functioning and the management style of its director, Air Commodore (retd) Jasjit Singh (avsm, VrC, VM).
Matters came to a head when Kapil Kak, Air Vice Marshal (retd), was appointed deputy director in July last year in a bid to undermine the existing deputy director, Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar. Since there was no sanction for the post Kak was assigned to, the MoD referred the case to the Finance Ministry, which questioned the appointment. The ensuing standoff goaded the MoD into withholding the last quarterly funds to idsa. Underlying the controversy over Kak is yet another issue—how to arrange a graceful exit for director Jasjit Singh. Hoping to anoint Kak as his successor, insiders claim, the director tried to lead the idsa's executive council into believing that the navy, to which Uday Bhaskar belongs, "wants him back." But it turned out that this wasn't the case, and such politicking only opened the Pandora's Box that is idsa.
The MoD has also prepared a "fairly detailed note" (15 pages long) that amounts to a review of the functioning of the idsa. This was done in the light of various complaints, including one by former executive council members who approached Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, who is also president of the executive council. The fact that Jaswant Singh has accepted that there is a problem with the idsa, says a senior executive council member, has sparked off a search for a suitable successor to Jasjit Singh. Indeed, all the symptoms of an institution going to seed are easily discernible. idsa staffers, on the condition of anonymity, say the director has given instructions that no one should talk to Bhaskar, and has also devised stratagems to circumvent the circulation of official documents in a logical and hierarchical pattern. Jasjit Singh (born July 1934) has had four extensions so far and is currently due to retire in July next year, at the ripe age of 67 years.
Insiders also point out that the idsa staffing pattern is a mess. Promotions and appointments as well as work allocation have been questionable and the credibility of the institution has hit an all-time low. The less said of the working environment the better: no harmony exists in terms of work ethos; insecurity is assiduously foisted—the services of eight staffers were abruptly terminated last week (four in the administration, two library staff, and two researchers); language skills are not being nurtured—in fact they're next to negligible, so all analyses are based on translations. Says Bharat Wariavwalla, a former senior associate and idsa scholar, "What ails this institution is that the tenure of directors is too long. There isn't much accountability, the executive council is often manipulated and several irregularities are simply condoned. Secondly, it has always been, in many ways, an appendage of the government." Agrees Air Cdr Prashant Dixit, an ex-idsa scholar, "Jasjit Singh is autocratic. The intellectual freedom there is inadequate."

no wonder honest analyses can hardly be expected from the institution. Says Wariavwalla, "Starting with K. Subrahmanyam (the first director) what the idsa has produced are jiffy newspaper articles, instead of position papers like what the iiss (International Institute of Strategic Studies, London) does. In the process, there are horrendous contradictions. Both Subrahmanyam and Jasjit were all for ‘non-weaponised deterrence', but after Pokhran they just switched to the government position. Some of the writing makes you squirm. For instance, what they thought of Soviet intervention in Afghanistan or the Iran-Iraq war, where they went completely wrong. It makes you wonder if they really are strategic analysts of any worth". Scoffs a former foreign secretary, "They don't even have a genuine disarmament expert". But this isn't all. Currently, there is no one who can categorically be regarded as a Pakistan expert, or even a Kashmir affairs expert. Expertise in terrorism and counter-terrorism is also sorely missing, and to worsen matters, the idsa doesn't even have an expert on American foreign policy. No wonder a serving diplomat describes inputs from the idsa as "pure bilge".
Sources say that foreign secretaries from Salman Haider onwards have been concerned about the idsa's inability to serve any larger purpose. Now, more than two years after the Pokhran explosions, no one seriously disputes that far-reaching changes in the idsa are in order. A senior defence person who has had a stint in the institute feels that "the second biggest culprit in the idsa affair is the executive council. There are too many people who have been put there by the director. Anyone who is strong in the EC is too busy to devote time. It is therefore stacked with people who have long ago lost their backbones in the journey to the top. Many misdemeanours are committed in plain view of the executive council members." Adds an idsa alumnus, "The place is badly run. The microfilm base is not even visible—it's useless. Wherever there is information it is squirrelled away by individuals, who're then in a monopoly situation. In its field, has the idsa produced even one classic—a work that becomes everyone's Bible—a standard primary reference work? The idsa has to be properly audited. The executive council has to be cleaned up."
People who staff the idsa now say that the only good break there is to leave it. Many have found slots outside, mainly in the academia, and some have become journalists. Yet even if the institute's affairs are properly cleaned up, it has to be borne in mind that it is the government, after all, that funds it. And governments anywhere tend to have a pronounced distaste for debates and positions not aligned to theirs. The government's ability to stop resources, including funding, in a way conditions both governance and functioning and quality of research in state-aided research institutes. Says a former idsa scholar, "The idsa is today used to justifying government positions post facto rather than suggest scenario-based policy options or models. In that respect, it's like a weathercock, indicating shifts in political winds." Others say that there is no rigorous supervisory mechanism or accountability. Says a Jawaharlal Nehru University staffer who was once in the idsa, "People are chosen for research work according to the likes and dislikes of the director.And he ends up picking up a person and asking him or her to work on a subject absolutely alien to them."
Adds another former idsa scholar, "There is always the same group of people who speak on every subject under the sun with complete authority—but without any knowledge. Here, opinion parades as knowledge. And the media encourages this syndrome. What has the idsa ever done but hold subzi mandi-style seminars? How many of these guys have published in a reputed journal anywhere in the world?" The question is largely rhetorical. Agrees a fairly senior and cynical institute staffer, "All we do is publish books of questionable value by the kilo. No policy input worth the mention ever originates from idsa. There is no credibility or academic integrity to speak of."
Says Maj Gen (retd) Yashwant Deva, a former senior idsa scholar, "As far as strategic analyses is concerned, the quality of writing there is questionable and trite, with few exceptions." Recently five idsa scholars were sent to the National Security Council Secretariat (nscs). Strangely, insiders say, none of those who were sent can honestly be said to have authoritative expertise in the core areas of India's concerns: China, Pakistan, terrorism and nuclear-related affairs. The fact that the government has acquiesced to idsa's nominees is telling.
The director, Jasjit Singh, wasn't available for comments. But so overwhelming is the dissatisfaction at idsa that many feel that it's imperative for foreign minister Jaswant Singh to intervene. For, he is known to be concerned about the lack of any strategic culture in this country. And the idsa epitomises why this is so. As its president, the least Jaswant Singh can do is to clean up the place. n

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