Event ReportsPublished on Jan 24, 2009
ORF Chennai chapter pays tribute to R K Mishra, Chairman of the Observer Research Foundation.
He always believed in resolving conflicts

N Sathiya Moorthy, Chair: We meet here on the solemn occasion to pay homage to the memory of Shri RK Mishra, Founder and Chairman of the Observer Research Foundation. The detailed interview given by Mr Mishra to Rediff.-dot-com in October 2004 which is before us, tells us everything that we have to know about the man, his vision and mission. He had the vision to think of the future India and what he always used to say as cooperative partnership to build a better India in the global scenario.

With that in mind he founded the Observer Research Foundation in 1990 and we have come this far as the first and possibly the only one multi-disciplinary public policy think tank in the country. He is one of the few people who concluded that ‘ideas are not the preserve of Delhi’

Mr Mishra was a multi-faceted personality who had also written books on philosophy and metaphysics. The first was published in 2001 and the last was published in 2007.

N Ram, Editor-in-Chief, The Hindu, ORF Chennai: This memorial meeting is here to celebrate the memory of RK Mishra, who was a picture journalist and intellectual interested in ideas and outcomes.

He clearly started out on the Left, but also interacted with the others and when asked left, right or centre he wouldn’t be labelled. He interacted with everybody in government and in the opposition. That is exactly what he did when he took on the role of leading the track II (non-formal diplomatic initiatives to normalise relations with Pakistan) process of dialogue, which ultimately led to good outcomes.

He obviously believed in resolving conflicts and that was one big idea in South Asia that could have been done much better. One cannot overcome challenges subjectively, but through tremendous effort and good concepts one can make progress. But RK was obviously unhappy with the abnormal situation that has prevailed in South Asia, primarily between India and Pakistan. In that sense he stepped beyond the traditional role of a journalist. By then he had entered politics, public affairs in the sense the journalists are sometimes shy of, and RK clearly believed in stepping beyond the traditional, conventional roles of journalism, and made no bones about it. He played mediator and peacemaker without exaggerating the role of any individual. This highlights the lifelong contributions of RK who lived a long and rich life and showed a lot of personal heroism in tackling cancer, with grace and resilience.

RK had progressive ideas although he refused to be labelled or branded saying that, ‘I am not right or left but I am an up rightist.’ He mixed many strands. RK become editor of Patriot and Link, two very great publications at a very young age, which was some kind of a record, through sheer dint of ability. He had no godfather and no other advantages except his sincerity, talent and progressive ideas. He was a progressive liberal, not in the European sense but in the Indian context. This did not rule out his taking an interest in religion. He was a devotee of the Kanchi Shankaracharya, and wrote books on the Vedas, but always with a sense of rationality. This illustrates that he was not afraid to enter different strands even if he were to be criticised.

RK was an internationalist, misconstrued as a rationalist sometimes because he did take up issues. But the very fact that he wanted to work against the odds, took a lot of trouble on India - Pakistan (relationship) highlights that point.  He thought on global terms without ever forgetting the roots here. So this explains why he took interest in so many issues, including the failed attempt to resolve the Ayodhya issue as member of the National Integration Council. The sincerity of the effort stood out, which shows that RK did think big on the national stage. To think that such an issue could be resolved with a few people needed some big intellectual thinking, some ambition, and he thought so, that with certain ideas it could be resolved, but it did not work. That is a different matter.

RK was very much interested in policy formulations and ideas again. Establishing ORF was his most enduring contribution. I appreciate the concept and the methods followed in the ORF. Initially I had some reservations, but RK stressed on its independent character. I saw it in the discussions on Sri Lanka in ORF Chennai organised by ORF. I think some of the best debates on Sri Lanka have taken place in ORF Chennai and if half of the ideas discussed here were to have been promoted and publicised, the situation would be better.

I also appreciate his personal qualities, his grace, his calm under great pressure, under real stress, his way in approaching people. He had friends in all camps without compromising or losing his soul. I salute those contributions.

Dr S Narayan: I am going to really miss him. I have known him for several years. The fact that on his visit to Pakistan, on his mobile he could establish a conversation between General Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and this coming from an individual, a person whose only wish and desire was that these conflicts and bloodletting and unnecessary fights over small pieces of land and territory should cease and there should be a step forward, is a matter of enormous, enormous, enormous respect for him, the man and his vision.

On a number of fairly critical issues I have seen him be very active, express a lot of anxiety particularly after 9/11, the way India was going to go, participate in the Iraq conflict and he had very, very strong views and all  of these coming from the deepness of his heart. He had a great vision for India as an economic power, a developed power. He used to always feel that we are missing out on a lot of opportunity in this.

In the ORF, from the time I left the government in 2004, he tried very hard to pull me in on a substantive capacity but he used to be fairly frustrated that I used to run away to do other things and not be able to devote enough time for that organisation. But I remained closely associated with ORF till about a year ago.

He was taken up and overwhelmed by the rich tradition, culture, art, history, heritage and culture of South India. He was a great mentor, a great advisor and guiding spirit and I will miss him a lot.

E R Gopinath, Chief of Bureau, ANI, ORF Chennai: I worked with RK back in the late 60s and 70s and having been launched by Aruna Asaf Ali he started flowering with Patriot and Link. His links with Mohan Lal Sukhadia helped him become a Rajya Sabha MP. He built up his contacts with the young Turks, Indira and Rajeev Gandhi and the others political stalwarts. His later contact with Dhirubhai Ambani through Arunaji led to the establishment of the Observer of Business and Politics, and then the establishment of ORF.  He has done a lot of work as a journalist and as a politician.

B S Raghavan, former Chief Secretary, West Bengal & Tripura: This gathering is a testimony to the great esteem in which RK Mishra was held and the recognition that he has left behind him an institution which could serve as a cauldron for public issues, where we would be able to come up with solutions based on thinking the unthinkable. To very few it is given to leave behind this kind of a monument, to very few. And very few enjoy respect and affection. To have a blend of both is a great tribute to that personality.

I will touch upon only two things that strike me about R K Mishra.  One is his unique brand of leadership. There are said to be four kinds of leader: the active-positive, the passive–positive, the active-negative and the passive-negative. The passive-positive is the one in which the leader himself does not take much interest but let’s the others carry on without interrupting or preventing them. The passive–negative is the one where the person himself is passive and does not generate ideas, does not enthuse, does not inspire. The active-negative is the most dangerous form of leadership where the person is actively negative, stopping everybody and being a stumbling block to action.

RK Mishra belonged to the rare variety of active-positive leadership where he himself generated ideas, he himself provided the platform, pedestal, inspiration and inspired others while he himself remained positive. He approached every issue in a positive manner. This active-positive leadership brings about two things. It gets the best out of people with whom one works with and Mr Mishra was capable of that. And, secondly, the human touch, the human approach without which one cannot gets anything done. The days of when one could get things done by virtue of designation, strength of authority, on the strength of structure are all gone. Things have to be done at a human level and Mr Mishra was an exemplary human being.

There is an endangered species occupying public life today: institutions builders. We are getting fewer and fewer institutions builders, which makes leaving behind an institution the rarest thing. An institution builder has to have a sense of vision, a sense of mission, a clear sense of where he is heading, a goal, and more than all, as anyone who runs an organisation will testify to, he should be able to convey his sense of vision, mission, goal to the those who are part of his enterprise. This is the most difficult thing, the communication of what you stand for being felt by all those in the organisation with the same intensity and passion which you hold those views. That kind of communication from the top, from the top to the last man, is a gift that few people have. Anyone can run an institution, coasting along is possible even for a low grade leader but to build one, making it enduring, a lasting evidence of enterprise, creativity, innovation is another thing.

Mr Mishra has achieved this no doubt and this is no day for mourning, this is a day for the celebration of his ideas and his achievements, that we had in our midst a person from whom we could draw so many profitable, useful lessons.

R Swaminathan, ex-Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, GoI: My personal interaction with Mr Mishra was limited to three or four meetings, each one was the most productive and enjoyable and you came out with a sense of having met somebody with an objective, with clear ideas. But I would like to talk, as Raghavan said, about celebrating his achievements, his life, of two things. One is his track II diplomacy that we hear a lot about and the non-governmental independent think tanks, which he gave a respectable name to in India. On track II diplomacy, by its very nature, the less we speak about it the more effective it will be and also by its very nature it is more personalised and less institutional. So, it is always in retrospect that one knows that certain track II effort had succeeded or not. This is because neither that person nor the people who benefited from that effort, are going to talk about it. It is one of those unsung heroes kind of a thing, but that Mr R K Mishra had achieved a lot.

On think tanks in India we were in a situation when non-governmental thinking was considered dissidence and dissidence was always considered treasonable. Many of us here are aware of it and we never admitted it. It was when I was in Washington that I had interactions personally with the Brookings Institution, the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, with the Georgetown University School of Business and Government, as it was known then, and it was found that there was a need and a possibility in India of having, bringing in an independent non-governmental think tank. But I did not want it to be an idea of an idealist on government service. Fortunately Mr Palkhiwala was our ambassador to Washington then and when I mentioned this to him and discussed this with him, spending three-four hours discussing the concept, and he said, “When can we start it?” My reply was, “I cannot start it because I have another 15 years of service to go.” To which his reply was, “All right, when I go back I will talk to Tata and see what can be done.” He was, of course, continued to be involved with Tata Sons, though he was on leave when he was ambassador for one year in Washington. We were in touch till his death. He was very kind and he said that people like the Tatas were not interested in funding a think tank unless it was captive to their enterprise, their business enterprise and said ‘we will have to find some other people’. He also mentioned, ‘I will talk to Ambani and some other people and see what will happen.’ This was all in the early 80s. After my retirement in 1990, when I heard that Mr Mishra had successfully started a think tank, I was very happy and proud that in India we are going to have an independent think tank and when I talked to Mr. Palkhiwala about it, he said, ‘This will be independent, I am assured of that.’

I had carried out a study of the fisheries in the Palk Bay, which Mr Mishra has referred to in his interview in 2004. I can say that in the three months that it took me to collect the material and the six weeks it took to write the paper, which ran into about 100 pages, there was not one instance of the ORF or Mr Mishra trying to find out from me what my thought process was.

I think Mr Mishra’s greatest contribution is to give responsibility to the concept of an independent non-governmental think tank, which can provide policy inputs to the powers that be, whether in government or business. I salute Mr Mishra for making this contribution for the first viable and sizable think tank like the ORF, bringing it into existence, and steering it through the first crucial years from the early phase when it dealt only with the economics and to the later phases when it veered to politics and political economics to the stage when the ORF Chennai Chapter started dealing with international affairs and  neighbourhood relations and now energy security and national security

N Ram: RK had some very interesting ideas towards the end, big ideas on the media, a bouquet of television channels which he discussed with Sashi Kumar and me, especially Sashi, who can throw some light on this as it is not really very well known as such.

Sashi Kumar Menon, Chairman, Asian College of Journalism, ORF Chennai: It is true that there was a major media initiative that Mr. Mishra was working on and I was involved with it for the last three years. I knew him before that. I was acquainted with him in the 80’s through my then boss Unnikrishnan with whom he was very closely associated in the Patriot days. What we were working on was a global channel out of India, much on the lines of the BBC, the Al Jazeera, the CNN, and the idea was to launch the Indian response to these channels. Alongwith this was a bouquet of channels within the country as well. He was very excited about this and we worked a lot on this. It did not proceed beyond a point for two reasons, the strategic alliance we were looking at in terms of international partnership did not happen for certain reasons and equally important was the fact that his indifferent health did not allow him to give the kind of attention that it required.

This was also a track II effort because I know that parallelly the Government of India was also talking about the same initiative at the PMO level and I have been associated with some of those discussions. It was a very visionary idea and had it happened, I think, as it would happen in the future, and if a channel of that nature happens it would have to come from India, it would have been something, and that was what we were working on.

B Raman: I came to know of the death of Mr Mishra in Bangalore when I was in Singapore a week ago. Someone from Delhi called me to give the news and it is really sad for me for I had a close association with him for over a period of three years.

I had come to develop a lot of regard for him, for his vision, his enthusiasm. He was past 70years of age, like me, but in his thinking, in his heart, the kind of energy he brought to the table was that of a young man of 30 or 25. We had developed a lot of regard and esteem for each other and we continued to be in contact with each other.

I came in touch with him for the first time in September 2002 over dinner at the house of a common friend in Delhi, when ORF in its present set-up had not come into existence. It began as a small cell in 1991 when Dr. Manmohan Singh took over as Finance Minister for Mr Narasimha Rao and this cell was providing inputs for the policy of economic reforms which had been initiated by Dr Manmohan Singh and continued to like that till 2002.

The decision to expand the ORF into a much bigger think tank with a much larger agenda and a much larger vision was taken in 2002. In that context, he expressed the desire to have a chat with me and we met at a common friend’s home for dinner where he mentioned that Mr. Dhirubhai Ambani whom he had met a few days earlier at Mumbai had asked why India has not been able to produce its own Brookings, and while there are so many brilliant think tanks in the United States we have not been able to develop one think tank of global repute which the world will also know. Dhirubhai Ambani also told him that we have got so many research people but we hardly find any Indian quoted or cited in the research products which come out in the west by other think tanks. If at all they cite an Indian, they cite an Indian who works in a foreign university but hardly any Indian from India is cited. So, we must be able to develop a think tank which is comparable to some of the best think tanks in the west, particularly the United States. Also we must be able to bring in a group of young people, research scholars who can attract international attention, whose views will be heard with respect and all.

RKM said that that was his intention, to give substance to these questions, expand the activities of the ORF, develop proper programmes. He want to have a security division, for which he wanted to appoint Gen. Malik as the head and he said that he also wanted to have a separate division which dealt with Pakistan, and he wanted me to take up the responsibility of heading that division. I told him that though I liked the idea I would not like to be disturbed from ORF Chennai where I had settled down after retirement some years before and had got quite used to the ORF Chennai pace of life. I suggested the names of a few people from whom he could to choose.

He then asked him how this can be developed. I told him two things: one is that normally most of the think tanks tend to be dominated by old people, retired from government and it is very important that they are there to provide guidance and experience, but the real work is done by the young people. He agreed with me on this and said that he wanted the retired old people to be there to guide the young people and that they should come up so that ultimately the youngsters take over. He kept up that idea right through. This was visible in ORF Delhi where the people who are running the show were the youngsters, in terrorism, Pakistan etc, and some of them were recruited directly from the university. He was always accessible to the young people, gave them encouragement. When they are least expecting it they will get a pay raise, when they are least expecting it they will get other incentives, and this was one thing that was greatly admirable in him. He kept up that interest in young people till the young.

The second thing that came out of another discussion I had with him a long time ago was when George Pompidou was the President of France there was this universal opinion that Paris was France and France was Paris because the universities and the academia outside Paris hardly made any contribution to policy making, to intellectual discussions, to any dialogue in France because the whole strategic atmosphere, the whole policy atmosphere was dominated by people who were in France. I told Mr. Mishra that in India also people have started thinking that Delhi is India and India is Delhi. There is a lot of talent, wisdom and knowledge available outside Delhi, which has been and is not being tapped in policy making, which has to be corrected. He totally agreed with me and he said that this has to be corrected. He also said that he had discussed this with Brajesh Mishra, who was the National Security Advisor then, and he was also of the view that there was a vast area outside Delhi, intelligence across the country which is not playing a role. There are more brilliant people outside Delhi than in Delhi, and they are hardly been taken notice of and are hardly been playing a role in policy making.

It was also one of RKM’s aims to bring in the rest of the country. It is with this view that he started the ORF Chennai Chapter, with an idea to start another chapter in Bhopal, expand it to Mumbai and with ideas to start something in Kolkata. It was his conscious effort to expand the ORF. He was a man of very wide contacts in both political and bureaucratic circles. He used to always stress the point that there was a huge India outside Delhi, and there is a lot of wisdom available outside Delhi.

For example, when the NSAB was being constituted by Brajesh Mishra, after Mr Vajpayee became Prime Minister he saw to it that a lot of people from outside Delhi, from the south, ORF Chennai, Bangalore and other places were included in the NSAB and Mr Mishra played an important role in this to persuade the government, to persuade the political leaders to take note of the talent that was available to make sure that the rest of India plays a role in policy making.

These are some of many admirable qualities he had. He developed the ORF Chennai Chapter and there were the other chapters and the only area where he could not do as much as he wanted to do was in developing a kind of original research on China. He said that most of the people who did research on China were working on material coming out of western think tanks. He felt that there was hardly any original research on China that was being done in India uninfluenced by the western countries or Japan or Southeast Asia. He wanted to develop a proper research capability on China and wanted to have a concentrated effort in that direction. I once again join in this condolence meeting and convey all our deep condolences to Mrs. Mishra and the members of the family on his passing away.

N Sathiya Moorthy: With this we come to the end of the day’s proceedings. We close with two minutes’ silence in prayer for the departed soul.

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