India has seen a phenomenal proliferation of think tanks, with their number increasing by 120% over the past three years. According to the global rating agency, India currently has 507 think tanks, narrowly surpassing China. The United States with 1,871 is at the top of the list. Despite the quantitative growth, we are lagging behind in qualitative terms, in particular the regulatory frameworks for discussion and dissemination of information and more importantly, monitoring is lax.
The problem was compounded by live social and electronic media coverage. As a result, statements made by the hierarchy of the armed forces were used to stir up controversy in the TRP. Recently, very fortuitous remarks by the Chief of the Defense Staff (CDS) and the Chief of the Defense Staff (COAS) have drawn unwarranted attention. Unfortunately, the net result is that the public is hanging on to a few controversial bytes, forgetting the fundamental issues.
The high ranking officers of the pre-social era had the luxury of the protection of the Chatham House Rule, which applied to deliberations, in which participants were free to use ideas and information but without attribution. This rule was designed to improve freedom of articulation and allow discussion of controversial ideas. The anonymity favored seemingly bizarre new projections, later finding acceptability after debate. The rule originated in June 1927 in the first think tank, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, based in Chatham, London.
As it stands on the brink of extinction, it is worth recalling the edict: “When a meeting or part of it is held under the rule of Chatham House, participants are free to attend. ” use the information received, but the identity or affiliation of the speaker (s), nor that of any other participant, cannot be revealed. The rule was conducive to compliance for print media, as publishers could exercise their discretion. Currently, even newspapers are forced, to “keep pace with Jones”, to digital media.
It is indeed worrying that on two occasions, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has chosen to contradict the very relevant remarks of CDS. The first case was when his suggestion to engage with the Taliban, while answering a question in Raisina Dialogue in 2018, was labeled by the MEA as a personal opinion. In all likelihood, we have kept a back channel or “track two”. The current situation forces us to accept the “realpolitik” of dealing with the Taliban. Indeed, it proves that CDS was not wrong. The much-vaunted strategy of “not engaging”, in addition to being non-diplomatic, is both impractical and counterproductive. He also ignores situational dynamism, with shifting goalposts.
Second, the peripheral remarks of the CDS during the discussion on the management of high defense at the IIC were unnecessarily emphasized. He hinted at the possibility of a convergence between the Sinic and Islamic civilizations, as Samuel Huntington predicted, in his widely acclaimed seminal theory. These words were once again dismissed by diplomats, to appease the Chinese hierarchy, on the eve of the talks.
Diplomats on both occasions could have been more discreet in invoking the Chatham House rule, reiterating that what is said in think tanks is essentially part of the academic debate. More importantly, the remarks in these cases were unrelated to the central theme of the deliberations. The views expressed by generals are organized by institutional bodies, such as the Directorate of Perspective Planning, headed by selected officers. These invariably go through three to four levels of scrutiny. They are certainly not an “improvised” variety.
Within the services, it is often the senior officers of the army who cause controversy. The differences in perception are indicative of the lack of interministerial coordination. SFOC, probably as a plentiful measure of caution, referred to the MEA bulletin in a recent conclave. This will be important, if the ministry proactively pushes information rather than the usual bureaucratic ploy of bringing in control by the MEA, thereby adding another link. The public disavowal of remarks from the army hierarchy is demoralizing for juniors and sends a negative message. It should be avoided.
It is indeed disconcerting that Chinese sensitivities trigger such a knee-jerk response. Diplomacy is based on the quid pro quo, it is high time we told them to stop flagrantly trampling on us. What is even more worrying is not being able to convey to the Chinese that concerns about collusion with Pakistan are real and shared by much of the savvy security professionals.
Soldiers are often caught in the ambiguity of the gray area due to their binary approach. Diplomats, on the other hand, are trained in the art of balance. Our first exposure to this dichotomy was a lecture by the then Foreign Minister at the Staff College in 1989. We were particularly captivated by a generous dose of anecdotes. The next day, Admiral Raja Menon gave us a reality check. We were asked to write down five new things we learned. He left us the freedom of a collaborative and unionized solution. We couldn’t write anything beyond “Panchsheel”, which we had learned in high school.
The most relevant lesson learned was that the art of storytelling is an essential part of public speaking, especially in avoiding controversy. It’s no wonder that in conclaves and televised debates, diplomats fare much better than veterans. It is different for diplomats to leave most of the debate open. He might recall an old maxim: a diplomat who says yes means maybe, maybe implicates, unlikely, and if a diplomat says no, he’s not a diplomat. For the soldiers, it is yes for yes, no for no and that perhaps means that he is becoming politicized.
The disappearance of the Chatham House rule will lead to more “behind closed doors” debates. It is already the culture of captive think tanks that goes against their raison d’être. The events in Afghanistan and the testimony of General Mark Milley underscore the need to give due credibility to the military point of view. Appropriate fixes should be applied for meaningful speech.