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The Rediff Interview/Rishi Kumar Mishra

October 27, 2004

In New Delhi everyone has heard of 'RK', but few know him well, though he is known to be a good friend of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Defence Minister Pranab Mukherji, former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, former deputy prime minister Lal Kishenchand Advani, and veteran Marxist leader Jyoti Basu.

Rishi Kumar Mishra is also close to the shankaracharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham, Jayendra Saraswati Swamigal. Dhirubhai Ambani, founder of Reliance Industries, was among those who trusted him.

To say that Mishra is a man with excellent networking is an understatement. But he is such a low-key player that even when he discussed the sensitive Jammu and Kashmir issue with Pakistan's Niaz Naik as part of the Track 2 diplomacy, hardly any diplomat knew his locus standi to represent the Indian side.

Mishra, a journalist, currently heads the Observer Research Foundation, a private think tank. The ORF, funded by Reliance, has an impressive list of dignitaries on its board, including former army chief General Ved Prakash Malik, Vice-Admiral K K Nayyar (retired), who is a member of the National Security Advisory Board, former foreign secretary M K Rasgotra, and Pakistan expert and columnist B Raman.

ORF recently entered into a partnership with the Brookings Institute, one of the more prominent think tanks in the United States, and is now seeking funds from Indian industries to research projects relating to India.

In an exclusive interview with Senior Editor Sheela Bhatt, Mishra spoke about his own journey and his plans for the future.

How and when was the ORF founded?

In 1990, India was facing a balance of payments crisis. I was editor-in-chief of the Observer [group of] papers. I was always interested in economic issues. Once, at my home in Delhi, I was having dinner with India's prominent economists. Twenty economists were discussing the mess which the Indian economy was in at that time. I told them, you have lead the Indian economy in the past, tell us how to get out of this mess now. One of the guests was P N Dhar, Mrs Indira Gandhi's principal secretary. He took up the challenge. Under his leadership we formed a group consisting of three former RBI governors, I G Patel, R N Malhotra and M Narsimham, who were present at the dinner table. They produced a paper called Agenda for Economic Reform. It was the first non-government document on reforms.

Then we founded the ORF to carry out the nationwide debate generated by this paper. We had a conference in Delhi in which Manmohan Singh and P Chidambaram participated with Indian industrialists. ORF even organised a meeting between then chief minister of West Bengal Jyoti Basu and then finance minister Manmohan Singh in Kolkata. We believe that even if you have different perspectives, you should have a dialogue. ORF believes in building a consensus on national issues.

How did Reliance get involved?

I knew Dhirubhai long before he became what he became. We used to visit each other's homes and chat a lot. Those who knew him well were aware that he had great vision. One day he told me, "I believe India will become a great power one day." I said, "To become a great power, you need great ideas." He asked me, "How will these great ideas be generated?" He told me, "Why don't you do it?" I told him I need resources. He called (his son) Mukesh (Ambani) and told him that let me build a world-class think-tank.

Later, when I went to the US, then Indian ambassador to America Lalit Mansingh convened a meeting of 25 American think-tanks. I proposed that ORF is looking forward to joint intellectual research ventures and not money. This I could do because Dhirubhai was behind me.

When I was visiting the US, he passed away, but I must say that Mukesh is upholding his spirit. At one stage, when our building was being built, I offered Mukesh to be a member of the board, but he said, "No, build ORF as an independent research think-tank. We will support you. We will be behind you." That's a great thing to say.

But no one can be naïve enough to think that any businessman, not just Reliance, will give any money that will not enhance their business interests.

I ask you, why have the Birlas set up so many temples? Why have Tatas created the Tata Institutes of Energy Research and Social Sciences? All Indian businessmen are not narrow-minded. Dhirubhai encouraged ideas and creativity.

I once put your question to him. He said, "I want Reliance to become a big company, it can become one only if India becomes a big nation. Then, Indians will buy my products." It is as simple as that. We should get out of this anti-businessman thinking generated by Indian bureaucrats. They think that businessmen are not concerned with national interests. Whenever I meet Indian businessmen I am telling them that the way American businessmen have done it, you can also build universities and participate in creating think-tanks. All the universities in America have been created by public philanthropy.

We know very little about you. Who are you? What are your interests? You don't sport a beard like most intellectuals in Delhi. You don't even wear kurtas. You are always in safari suits.

I am a common person. I started as a journalist. I have been a vagabond in my life and my career. I am a student of science, commerce and economics. I was in Kolkata for a few years, then in Jaipur and then in Delhi. I took up my first job in Kolkata in 1946-1947 in a Hindi paper called Lokmanya. I introduced the first ever commerce page in a Hindi daily. At the age of 27 I became editor of Navyug, a Hindi newspaper of Jaipur.

Are you leftist, centrist, or rightist?

When this question was put to Indira Gandhi, she said that I am an uprightist! These are labels and mean nothing. I was a Congress member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha supported by the Leftists. I am a staunch devotee of Jagadguru Shankaracharya. I have written three books on interpretations of the Vedas -- Before the Beginning and After the End: Rediscovering Ancient Insights; Cosmic Matrix in Light of Vedas; Mind, Energy and Matters in Light of Vedas. Now I leave it to you to judge whether I am leftist or rightist.

You have debated the issues of India with so many leaders. What is the one issue that, if addressed, can bring fundamental change in India?

One of the biggest challenges of India is the issue of governance, which is related to the structure of our Constitution. How
should we govern India? How can India become governable? And that requires cultural and educational attitude changes. Once those changes take place, we will be able to define what are our national interests. And once we are able to define what is in our national interest, we will be able to ascertain who are our friends and who are enemies.

We know about the individual's interests. I know about my interests, but I am not clear about what is in India's national interest. ORF is trying research in that direction.

Does ORF have any political leaning?

No. It is independent. We have people with different perspectives. As Strobe Talbott said, at Brookings they have Democrats and Republicans. We are trying to build an independent character.

In view of the partnership with Brookings, how are you going to retain the Indian identity of ORF? Is there the possibility of Americanisation of your research?

What do you think of the Indianisation of Brookings? Why such questions? We should be very self-confident. After all, India is not a banana republic. The Indian mind is not something that you can easily manipulate. We should be ready to learn. As Gandhiji said, we should keep the windows open so that fresh breeze can flow in, but our feet should be firmly on the ground. It's unfortunate that we don't see ourselves with high self-esteem. I and Strobe talk as equals.

How do you look forward to this partnership?

It's a very important partnership which I expect to be highly productive. It will be good for ORF. I am sure our thinkers would be able to influence Brookings, and vice-versa. Stephen Cohen, the great researcher and expert on Pakistan, has appreciated our researcher Wilson John's book on Karachi. It's our intellectual integrity and research capabilities that will influence Brookings. We will jointly study the energy sector and Russia. We are starting the US studies programme in India and a programme on building leadership in India. At ORF we have a joint task force with the Pacific Council where we are looking at all aspects of the future of Indo-US relations.

A whole range of things is on. We want to concentrate on Ahmedabad and Mumbai. Ahmedabad has a great tradition of research. Our major project in Gujarat is about the decentralisation of health care in India. We convened a conference of Gujarat-based NGOs and on the basis of their recommendations we convened a national conference to develop a model for a decentralised healthcare system. We want to develop a model which can be replicated in other parts of India.

We have a huge programme on Pakistan studies. At ORF Pakistani guest Akbar Zaidi has published a study of the Pakistan economy.

What are your major challenges in developing ORF?

In India people are not accustomed to doing public policy research outside of the government or universities. We want young researchers to do relevant research, which can be funded. A product, which should have a market. We are training young researchers to do socially relevant research. 

At ORF we believe wisdom doesn't lie only in Delhi. I live in Delhi, but Delhi is only a city of babus [bureaucrats]. Many bureaucrats are good, even my family has a number of bureaucrats, but the point is, ideas are not the preserve of Delhi. India is a huge country. Therefore, we want to nurture resources from all parts of India.

At the first opportunity we have created the Chennai chapter and we are so proud of what Chennai is doing. They have produced a book on Sri Lanka. Every week they are having talks. They have organised studies of fishermen's problems in the Palk Straits. They have organised a first-of-its-kind conference on terrorism in Southeast Asia. Now they are organising a conference on maritime terrorism. We don't want to end up talking about the same thing to the same set of people in Delhi.

Are financial resources a problem?

A very big problem. Reliance has created the facility, has built the centre at Rouse Avenue in Delhi [in the Institutional Area]. But our annual budget is approximately Rs 3 crore.

How did you get involved with the Pakistan issue?

This is a real question. I am not going to answer it. I am interested in Pakistan because I was born in Jung, which lies in
Pakistan now. I am interested in Pakistan because I believe that this is the issue that India must resolve.

Will this issue get solved in our lifetime?

Yes, I think so. Not just the solution, but the process is important. I don't talk about Pakistan because next you will ask me
what was I doing with Niaz Naik.

Correct. What were you talking to him about?

That I will not reply to, but I must say that under military pressure Niaz Naik has spoken a lot of incorrect things.

Headline Design: Uttam Ghosh

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