Think-Tanks Time in India

think_tankThere is no shortage for ideas in India. From the olden days Indians are known for their augmentation and idea skills. No wonder with the booming think-tanks around the world India is also capitalising on this new found fashion. It has both positive and negative impacts. The positive impact is provided by the genuine think-tanks and the negative side is contributed by the junk ones which exists for the popularity promotion of its founder or just to make money. The rot is so bad when we invited a prominent political personality and she immediately rebuffed me by saying that she don’t speak in think-tanks which is of no practical use for the country. Due to some of the faulty think-tanks the name itself spoiled. But there is no stopping of think-tanks cropping up in every nook and corner of the country.

The Times of India writes (16 October 2009)

When it’s time to put our thinking caps on, theorise , conceptualise and speculate, we’re among the best. Punditry is more than just an ancient 422 and counting… Think tanks boom in India calling for Indians, with the country being home to 422 recognised think tanks.

According to a study by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, this tally puts India second only to the US, which is home to over 2,000 such institutions that research and analyse important public issues. Many of the US think tanks, sometimes referred to as ‘idea factories’ , are hugely influential in determining US government policy. But experts say that India barely invites comparison with the US here.

Most Indian think tanks focus on development concerns, says the report, but less than 15 per cent study security issues and foreign policy. Most top American and European think tanks significantly influence policy in these fields, and also serve as talent hubs. The American ‘revolving door’ model, where think tanks contribute to government appointments and vice versa, is notable. Condoleezza Rice is a recent example.

Strategic affairs guru K Subrahmanyam says that only as a nation begins to look outward will it devote more resources to such fields. He explains that most US think tanks were set up after World War II, when America ascended the world stage as a superpower.

Many problems plague Indian think tanks, according to the survey. Most appear to be lacking in funds and autonomy, with the government a principal funder.

Most are also too academic-oriented . B Raman, a think tank head, also questions the motivation of many Indian outfits, saying they are more interested in organising conferences than producing meaningful research.

Sanjaya Baru of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, London, agrees and points a finger at an Indian bureaucracy traditionally averse to external inputs on foreign policy and security . He contrasts this with economic policy-making , the only field where the government has made use of outside expertise – Manmohan Singh being a good example. But all other areas have remained closed to outside expertise and advice for the most part.

Baru says that virtually no information is made available by the Indian government . Subrahmanyam recalls a chat with UK think tank Chatham House’s head in the ’80s, where he pointed out that while western think tanks did not get funding from governments they got access to government information. In India, think tanks got some government funding but no information. “Nothing much has changed in the last two decades,” he says. “Bureaucrats still retain power by withholding information.”

Most Indian outfits are too poorly funded and stuffed with far too many retired government greybeards to serve as talent shops. Both major reasons Baru and Subrahmanyam tick for bright young scholars not joining think tanks here, unlike in the West. Which begs the question, can Indian think tanks serve as long-term incubators of fresh ideas and policy alternatives?

There may yet be hope. Data from think tank research is often used to support debates within governments. Kanti Bajpai of Oxford University lists this “rationalising function” as a key aspect of think tank influence – even in hidebound India, citing a well-known example involving Subrahmanyam.

An influential article by Subrahmanyam , then a think tank head, added greatly to momentum that led to India’s military role in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. India’s nuclear weapons policies are also highlighted as being principally shaped by scholars and experts. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Bajpai also underlines the latitude and detachment that a think tank environment offers for comprehensive long-term research. No civil servant, however smart or well intentioned, is likely to get such leeway in government service. Think tanks also often play devil’s advocate and voice researched , contrarian opinions. This is a vital function in any liberal democracy.

Further, for being in the ideas business , Indian think tanks don’t spread the word, says Bajpai. Liberally seeding relevant circles – the media, lawmakers , peers – with their research is the key to making some impact, he stresses.

But others grumble that funds to run such outfits are still hard to come by. India’s rising economic profile gives hope, though. All experts are optimistic that this would soon lead to corporate houses liberally funding more research. If the government opened up to receiving inputs, this ideal scenario would be complete. But as think tanks know only so well, not all scenarios play out perfectly. India’s think tanks clearly have a long way to go beyond just making up the numbers on global listings, however impressive.

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