UPA was Rajiv Gandhi Foundation’s golden past with donations, dignitaries. Then it lost swagger

[ThePrint] UPA was Rajiv Gandhi Foundation’s golden past with donations, dignitaries. Then it lost swagger

New Delhi: The Rajiv Gandhi Foundation is no longer what it used to be in the heyday of the United Progressive Alliance government. The Ministry of Home Affairs has cancelled its Foreign Contribution Regulation Act licence, restricting the foundation’s access to international funding.

But the think tank, which has close associations with the Gandhi family, has been floundering over the last few years, reportedly hit by a funding crunch, lack of autonomy, contract employees, low-impact programming, and increased scrutiny by the Narendra Modi government. Now it has lost its swagger. As part of its cost-cutting measures, it has discontinued its scholarship programme, reduced the strength of its staff, and converted its research positions into contractual ones, say multiple sources, including former employees.

The RGF currently functions out of three rooms in Jawahar Bhavan on Raisina Road opposite Krishi Bhawan. The huge complex, which was once supposed to be the headquarters of the Congress, is deserted on a busy weekday morning. An empty corridor on the second floor leads to the three rooms bearing the nameplate ‘RGF’. There is just a lone employee overseeing the management work.

On occasion, the silence is broken by book launches and cultural events organised by the Jawahar Bhawan trust. The most recent were the screenings of Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s films. The week-long festival in August was attended by the intellectual elite of Delhi and students.

Digging into ‘dubious’ funding

The RGF has been under increased scrutiny by the Centre for some time now. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alleged that it had received funds from “dubious sources”, including absconding businessman Mehul Choksi, controversial ‘preacher’ Zakir Naik, embattled businessman Jignesh Shah, and former CEO of Yes Bank, Rana Kapoor. In 2020, the home ministry set up an inter-ministerial committee to carry out an investigation.

The ministry had also accused RGF of receiving funds from the Chinese embassy to lobby for a ‘free trade agreement between India and China’ in 2005.

The decision to cancel the FCRA licence of RGF and the Rajiv Gandhi Charitable Trust is based on the recommendations of the investigation committee, an MHA spokesperson told ThePrint.

On its part, the RGF said in its declaration to the ministry that “foreign donation is not likely to affect prejudicially the sovereignty and integrity of India, security, strategic, scientific or economic interest of the state; freedom or fairness of election to any legislature, friendly relations with any foreign state; or harmony between religious, racial, social, linguistic or regional groups, castes or communities.”

But while it has uploaded its financial statements till the year 2020-21 mentioning the amount of donations, grants and funds it received and expenditures incurred, it did not declare the names of the donors.

Also read: All about 3 Gandhi family-linked trusts being probed by govt for ‘financial irregularities’

A Gandhi legacy behind

The idea of setting up the foundation took root after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. “The family received many donations as a mark of respect for him and the family. His work has been left incomplete, so it was an attempt to keep his legacy alive,” says Wajahat Habibullah, a close friend of Rajiv Gandhi and former Chief Election Commissioner, who was involved in setting up the foundation.

The RGF was set up with a corpus of Rs 24 crore on 21 June 1991, exactly a month after Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. At the start, its trustees included prominent names such as former president Shankar Dayal Sharma, former Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao, entrepreneur and innovator Sam Pitroda, former Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, and even filmstar and Gandhi’s close friend Amitabh Bachchan.

“P. V. Narasimha Rao had sanctioned Rs 100 crore for the foundation, but Mrs Gandhi politely declined, saying that it did not want to avail government funds,” says Habibullah.

While the foundation focuses on social issues, its sister organisation, Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary Studies (RGICS), which was established the following year, carries out research and policy development on contemporary challenges facing India.

Back in the day, it wasn’t uncommon for international dignitaries and world leaders to visit the RGF. The first Rajiv Gandhi Memorial Lecture in 1992 was delivered by former World Bank president Robert S. McNamara. Over the years, environmentalist Norman Myers, Nobel laureate Prof. Ahmed H. Zewail, former Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, former Chinese Ambassador Zhang Yan have all addressed the memorial lecture.

Former British PM Margaret Thatcher delivered the Rajiv Gandhi Golden Jubilee Memorial Lecture in Bangalore in 1995. And there was a time when Prince Charles was its chief patron in the UK. Apart from other development initiatives, the RGF was also famous for its scholarship given to Indian students for studying at Cambridge University, but this has reportedly been discontinued.

Whenever the RGF reportedly wished to use Hyderabad House for seminars, the MEA would agree to its request. The Human Resource Development ministry would pay the airfare of RGICS delegates travelling to foreign seminars as mentioned in some old reports.

A senior Congress party member told The Print that he had recently also raised questions on the land ownership of the Jawahar Bhawan. The Right To Information query only revealed that a piece of land measuring 9319.42 sq. yards had been “leased out in favour of ‘Jawahar Bhawan Trust’ vide perpetual lease deed on 22 September 1988 for office of Jawahar Bhawan Trust only and for on other purpose whatsoever”.

In the ’90s, the trustees of the organisation used to meet every Monday at 10, Janpath — the Lutyens bungalow allotted to Sonia Gandhi when Rajiv was assassinated. However, the meetings are now less frequent.

But ever since the change of guard at the Centre, many policy experts claim the RGF’s work was never broad-ranging and that it owed its prominence to the UPA government being in power.

“It was not a very broad-ranging think tank. Its engagement with foreign policy and national security was relatively limited and was largely focused on domestic, socio-economic issues,” says a former high-ranking RGF official who did not want to be named.

While some of its projects were “interesting”, it became prominent because the Congress was in power. “If you have a government which is closely associated with a particular think tank, then everyone wants to go there,” he adds.

Also read: AAP is the main opposition in Gujarat now. So Sisodia is being targeted

RGF after Bibek Debroy 

Early rumblings of discontent began in 2005 itself when Bibek Debroy, now the chairman of the Economic Advisory Council to the PM, headed research at the RGICS. He left the post of director in 2005 after ranking Gujarat as number one in an economic freedom index in a study. This reportedly did not go down well with many Congress leaders, and the discontent spread within RGF as well.

“There was a massive row with Bibek Debroy, after which he left. Things changed once Debroy left. Over a period of time, perhaps from an institution which was an umbrella organisation, it almost became kind of a mouthpiece,” says a senior official from another prominent think tank.

When ThePrint reached out to Debroy for a comment, his office responded saying he did not want to comment on the issue.

But it was more than just Debroy’s report or his exit that affected the RGF.

“In 2010-11, there was an effort to make the RGF an intellectually powerful think tank, but it fizzled out because the senior Congress leadership never wanted to give autonomy to the organisation. They (Congress) wanted it to follow their instructions and make it an institution that also catered to cadre training for the party. Without autonomy, no think tank can flourish. Until 2014, it was being used as training for party cadres,” the official adds.

Other former employees and officials who were once associated with the RGF said the think tank has started losing its way. “It became a part outfit, and that is why you don’t see any output of any academic calibre coming out of it at all,” he adds.

Others say that its identity has been reduced to being a mouthpiece of the Congress.

These claims could not be independently verified. Vijay Mahajan, CEO of the think tank, refused to comment on the issue. ThePrint reached out again to him over email with a detailed questionnaire, but no response was received.

The RGF today

The RGF website says that it is currently involved with livelihood restoration, skill development, water conservation and heritage. In a recent report in its quarterly publication Policy Watch, the RGF featured an article titled ‘Growth without Employment — Worrying Trends from Gujarat’. “Using recently published government data from the annual survey of industries, it shows how this is not happening adequately in Gujarat, which leads in the growth of capital investment while Tamil Nadu leads in terms of factory employment,” the report stated.

In another 2020 paper titled ‘India China Trade and Investment’ published, it recommended getting Chinese MSMEs (micro, small, and medium enterprises) to manufacture in India, positioning ‘Make In India for the world’ as the theme for new industries and exploring focused strategies for exporting to China.

The think tank is also working on a project in collaboration with the Congress government in Chhattisgarh to establish a high-tech power electronics manufacturing hub in the state.

But a section of policy analysts and critics claim that they know very little about the scholars and research associates at the foundation.

“I don’t see them either convening anything or producing any great reports. This was the case even before 2014, so I don’t really know whether they [Congress] were interested in keeping RGF alive as a thinking space and working on policy matters. It’s just reiterating the ideas of the party and the Gandhi family,” says a policy analyst.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

Source: ThePrint