With the National Security Advisor and his deputy both coming in from think tanks, there naturally has emerged a good feel in this knowledge sector. However, there are structural issues which need attention and India has a long way to go before research and policy get positively locked, say Uttam Kumar Sinha and Rajiv Nayan

In one of his initial addresses, on June 8, 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasised the need for think tanks to enrich and bolster policy-making. The occasion was the release of a report published by a foreign think tank. Paradoxically, the report created an impression that Indian think tanks are unable to generate such work and that the Indian policy-making process receives little input from the think tank community. Is it true? Partly — in fields such as economics and trade, Indian think tanks have made impact in policy-making, while in the security and strategic areas, the role has been limited due to many factors.

Modi, however, is quite clear that India needs to work, in his own words, on “skill, scale and speed” if it wants to have a footprint in global affairs. This catchphrase was made in the context of China during the visit of the Foreign Minister Wang Yi, signifying the need for capacity-building and investments in research and findings (skill); ability to introduce big ideas while not losing sight of ground realities (scale); and for quick decision-making and policy implementation (speed). This is where think tanks, described as ‘hybrid creatures’ or ‘brain trusts’, come in, using the spaces between Government, business and academia to link knowledge with the complex business of policy.

In a world of transformative change, Governments find it increasingly difficult to obtain all relevant information and knowledge to justify policy decisions, especially as many policy pronouncements have potential consequences. The gap between knowledge and policy is driving the demand for advice and advisory bodies. It is hard for elected Government to function today without being accountable and transparent. Consequently, its delivery mechanism has to be dependent on evaluation, a process that requires greater investment in translating research into policy option.

The why, what and how of think tanks

Think tanks are not monolithic and defining them is problematic. There are several definitions and typologies based on different criteria. The Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP) of the University of Pennsylvania, that publishes the annual Global Go To Think Tanks Report, considers think tanks as “generating policy-oriented research, analysis and advice on domestic and international issues that enable policymakers and the public to make informed decisions”. Think tanks in a way can be cost-effective to kickstart a new policy initiative or open up a discussion or even test a new idea.

Think tanks were greatly influential in the democratisation processes in many Latin American countries in the 1980s. Equally, they have played central roles in the remaking of the British Labour Party and German Social Democrats as a ‘Third Way’ in the 1990s. It is now well known that George W Bush administration’s security and foreign policy was greatly influenced by the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). From politics to economy and from military to diplomacy, think tanks in China providing consultation and advice to the Government have seen a phenomenal growth. Today, China has the second largest think tanks in the world after the US. The world clearly is a closely knit one — of networks between politics, public relations and between lobbying companies, corporates and think tanks.

While all think tanks may be characterised as the ‘bridge’ — not all of them do the same things or have the same degree of financial and intellectual independence. Think tanks are often criticised for not being scholarly (meaning shallow), but also admired for their proximity or links with politics or business (meaning networking). But what truly should be common to think tanks is the ability to come out with bold statements, or to present a big idea or even to give an interesting angle to a story in the media. As the relevance of think tanks grows, some critical questions continue to emerge: What is the credibility of the think tanks research or, in other words, how do they produce knowledge? How and in what ways are think tanks influential in advising on policy formulation? Is it objective and balanced expertise or partisan advice? It is interesting to evaluate these in the Indian context, in particular with national security think tanks.

Their role in the Indian context

India has had experiences of think tanks working on defence and security issues, but there is no accurate measurement of how much they have influenced polices. While in many parts of the world the fusion of think tanks to policy is refined, in India the why, what and how of a think tank role is still an unsettled debate and tends to get lost in the rigmarole of decision-making. The TTCSP report places three Indian institutions in the world’s top 65 national security think tanks. The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) is ranked 38, followed by the more recent Centre for Land Warfare Studies at 48 and the Observer Research Foundation at 52.

Interestingly, some section of the strategic community refuses to accept organisations like the United Service Institute (USI) of India as a think tank. Ironically, almost all writings on think tanks recognise the London-based Royal United Services for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) established in 1831 as a classical think tank. Sceptics maintain that the USI of India is tasked to promote ‘strategic culture’ through events and not by conducting research. Another view maintains that the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, the Centre for Air Power Studies and the National Maritime Foundation are hardly think tanks, but merely lobbyists for their respective services. These assertions are not based on sound logic or facts. In reality, all are engaged in what any typical think tank is supposed to do.

The problem is systemic with an over centralised decision-making that is often ignorant and chary of engaging with the think tanks. So to suggest that the policy process is not getting enough input is merely deriding and scoffing think tanks. Policymakers should be warm to accept intellectual inputs. The problem, therefore, is of the policy environment in which Indian think tanks are operating and this requires radical changes. Moreover, the meaning and value of knowledge itself in the 21st century is different — knowledge is for what it can do. The internet revolution and globalisation are pushing information rapidly in the public domain. The exclusivity of information with a few, as in the past, is no longer relevant today, and the elitist approach to decision-making in times of complex interconnectivity can only lead to lame and rickety policies. No one sector has a monopoly on wisdom.

The think tank sector in India is unlike the US where there is a ‘revolving door’ between the bureaucracy and the policy research community. Think tanks in the US find various entry points and have multiple opportunities to convey their ideas and expertise, including the Congressional hearings. In India, this process is inherently difficult but there is undoubtedly a requirement to reorient the national security policy-making process with rather than without think tanks.

Do Indian think tanks have the capacity to contribute to the decision-making for national and global security? Despite operating against heavy odds, think tanks have contributed to the national security discourse and continue to do so. Not all research and findings are policy-oriented and not all works are adopted, but some do find way into the policy output. However, think tanks will have to undergo major transformation. While most of the think tanks have a general idea of what they want to achieve not all have a clear plan to ensure success. Think tank analysts seldom plan or strategise their impact and get swayed with the tag of advising and influencing policymaking without knowing how to advise or how to influence. Public policy is a competitive area with too much noise and researchers will have to know the audience.

Think tankers also miss the wider objective, for example sensitising and alerting issues, forming a network of common experts to collaborate for specific purpose, what is known as ‘collectivising intelligence’, and establishing contacts in the Government, security agencies and the media to communicate ideas. Think tankers will need to acquire a new set of skills and arm themselves with new methods. Social network analysis, net assessment, scenario building have made unique difference to policy decision, especially by suggesting options based on various situations. Indian think tanks have to use new methodologies going beyond the traditional methods, such as net assessment and scenario building. Soon the Indian think tanks and universities should be capable of developing new and advanced methods in India.  Ideas and inputs need to have legs to reach the policy door. Until think tanks develop, package and market ideas, their role will be ineffectual.

In India, admittedly, the acceptance rate of think tank inputs is low in policy exercise. But it doesn’t need to stay that way especially in times of new international situations where quick thinking and responses are required to handle unexpected crisis. As India’s world view and involvement enters a more comprehensive period with sweeping changes, Modi will need to push the system and the national security apparatus for actively engaging with think tanks and including them in Government work. There is nothing schizophrenic about think tanks. In fact, the synchronisation will only help create an environment that enables new thinking and bold approaches with an end objective of well-prepared policy outcomes.

Managing think tanks in a changing world

The leadership issue has always been one of long standing debate, particularly in Government-funded institutes. Currently, most of the defence and security think tanks including IDSA, the grand daddy of them all, are monopolised by the retired community of civil bureaucracy, diplomacy and the armed forces — what is pungently described as institutions with retiring rooms. Is there something wrong with this picture? It depends on how one looks at it and from which angle.

At one level the argument is a convincing one that since think tanks are policy-oriented and not universities, Government officials with experience in the nitty-gritty of decision-making and the intricate knowledge of the system are well-suited to head think tanks primarily to facilitate and synergise research and bureaucracy. The problem is that the retired tag has little traction in the Government and those who retire to head institutions are immediately put on the margins. Does it then merit a serving high-ranking official to head a Government think tank? It would seem rational as the chosen person will carry the official weight to channel thinking into the policy circle, but this ‘revolving door’ approach has to be streamlined and the selection has to be a considered exercise and not seen as ‘officials-in-exile’ from the Government.

Importantly, after completing the stint there has to be an incentive of a more powerful and challenging position in the Government. Another constituency that aspires to lead strategic think tank is the Armed Forces. There is a growing belief amongst military personnel, as they compete for post-retirement positions, that soldiering and strategic thinking is akin. A thinking soldier is a hedge against strategic uncertainties but to expect a retired military man to break intellectual entrenchment or to advance evidence-based and informed policy ideas is probably expecting too much. Eventually, with a hierarchical civil bureaucracy a military head will only end up bookkeeping.   

It is an irony that the discussion on think tank leadership finds strategic analysts on the sidelines. Can they not head think tanks in which they have contributed for long years? If they are part of the strategic community and strategic thinking — and there are many world-acclaimed Indian strategic experts — why cannot they assume leadership role? Unfortunately, the voice for ‘giving research institutes to researchers’ has not enjoyed acceptability in the bureaucracy; a reflection of the age-long contestation between merit and power. The debate will continue but most importantly whatever headship a think tank ends up with, the question is whether those in charge understand the dynamics of think tanks. Surely, think tanks want leadership that extols ideas, encourages conceptualisation and backs its researchers rather than propagate bureaucratic functioning. It is time to defocus on the leaders and concentrate on making research purposeful. Think tanks’ bosses will come and go but professional researchers will continue to occupy the intellectual space. However, they should be prepared for demand for more rigorous innovative research in quick time.

Some believe that the Government funding influences the outcome of think tanks, and as a result independent ideas are not generated. It is a myth. IDSA is a good example, having enjoyed unmitigated freedom in research and thinking with hundred per cent funding.

In Europe, Government funding gives more credence to research project. According to an estimate, around 70 per cent of the funding of the leading US think tanks comes from the Government. On the contrary, industry or foreign funding does not guarantee that research will be without strings attached. Funding is critically important for think tanks, but how they manage their resources is equally important. It is pitiable to see gross administrative bulge in think tanks where funding is fundamentally for research and researchers. While Government-funded think tanks of advanced industrial countries invest in field trips for better results, in India austerity is cited as the reason for denial. It is a different matter that grants are spent on frivolous matters and extending patronage to something which has nothing to do with research.

Think tanks are a great strength to the country and enrich public policy debates.  IDSA, which will soon mark 50 years of existence, is a testimony to that. Its outreach through its peer reviewed publications and website, according to Alexa ranking, outshines many acclaimed think tanks like SIPRI, Chatham House, Carnegie Endowment and IISS. The legacy of IDSA is in building a strategic culture and collective national expertise, which every Government should have the right to call upon them when taking critical decisions. Sure the Government faces budgetary constraints but it should not deter thinking and the spirit for reforms and solutions. Modi’s strong vision for India is a rally call for think tanks. If we miss the opportunity to intervene properly in global security governance in which think tanks are serious actors, the country will dither in the long run.

The writers are senior researchers at IDSA



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