“The Existential dilemma of Indian think tanks”

This piece was originally published on the website of the Observer Research Foundation on September 9th, 2009. It was used as suggested reading at the IDSA 2009 Foundation Day Conference on ‘The State of International Studies in India” and quoted extensively by the Takshasila Institute.


The community of ‘strategic analysts’ in Delhi has reached an impasse. A bright group of scholars and academics, retired military officers, defense journalists, and others have the same weekly schedule. One week, we will sit in the conference room of one think-tank and come to a number of profound, vital conclusions. The next week, the same group will meet in another conference hall to come to the exact same conclusions—equally profound, equally vital. The venue changes, the panelists and participants may trade places, and the paneer may have a different masala, but after years of this weekly practice, this group’s influence has not gone very far.

The common conclusions do not necessarily speak to a lack of diversity in thought, but rather to an important consensus across a broad spectrum. These conclusions are simple, yet meaningful—if not of the utmost importance for India’s future:

  • India lacks a vision of itself in the world; it needs one.
  • India has a very reactive strategic culture, unsure of its own potential; this should change.
  • Indian government is too stove-piped; to harness its full potential, government must be integrated and coordinated across disciplines (to this I would add, across scales).
  • Weak governance processes inhibit policy execution; these processes must be fixed.
  • Plans too often remain in office cabinets and hard drives; they must stop gathering dust and be implemented.

But however important these insights and recommendations, the ‘strategic community’ does not practice what it preaches; moreover, we often blame others for what are essentially our own shortcomings. Think of the answers to a few, seemingly simple questions:

What is the role of think tanks and non-governmental ‘strategic analysts’ in Indian affairs? Are they publishing houses? Academic havens? Shadow governments? “Not quite sure…to inform public opinion?” Never mind that no one outside our clique listens, or is involved in the process. Quite a vision.

How should we go about enacting the policies and ideas we recommend? “The government should just take our policy suggestions; it’s up to them how to implement it.” Criticizing is just the easy part…so much for a focus on process.

Why haven’t these ideas been integrated and cross-pollinated with economists, education policy planners, business, climate scientists, development practitioners and others to forge a vision of where India should be? “Because the same people attend the same conferences saying the same things…” More integrated and coordinated, eh?

Why aren’t we acting on any of these ideas? “The government does not listen to us; there is nothing we can do.” It seems our plans are gathering dust because we’re waiting for others to act…Reactive indeed.

Given the importance of this strong consensus amongst non-governmental think-tanks, it does not help anybody to continue to air these ideas day in and day out in the ivory tower. Instead of weekly conferences of the same people saying the same things, our ideas need new light and fresh air; they need to take actionable forms.

For a start, let us do some serious outreach to university campuses, schools, media and elsewhere—and not just in Delhi. These forums are perfect places for a new generation of leaders around the country to get involved early, to learn about the issues from the people who know them best, and to forge professional connections that can help them later in their careers. They are also perfect ways for our grand ideas to reach new audiences and be informed by novel perspectives.

Moreover, why should Delhi have a monopoly on good ideas? While Mumbai is the economic capital of India, its history has also forced it to be a center of strategic and policy thought from which Delhi remains divorced. Having to deal with distinctive challenges, Mumbai’s police, academics, journalists and media members, management specialists, technologists, other experts, and citizens alike bring unique perspectives to issues usually thought to be the exclusive jurisdiction of New Delhi—the policy implications of economics, science and technology, migration, development, urban and local crime, and organizational management, to name just a few. The same is true of other urban and non-urban hubs around the country.

Second, while many in the Indian strategic community focus on policy (what should be done), analysis of the processes of governance (how it should be done) is usually forgotten. But incongruence between policy and process—strong policy-making and weak policy implementation and process—is in many ways the greatest challenge India faces. Processes of governance must be understood and strengthened if policies are to be successfully enacted and threats successfully managed. It is easy to criticize; it’s quite another thing to say how to fix it. We in think tanks have the opportunity to think critically about processes, while government bureaucrats are trapped in them.

The third hurdle is a little higher. Government bureaucracies in India are particularly resistant to change and outside influence. Ideas do not flow laterally in Indian government so much as hierarchically. This is in large part to reinforce the monopoly on power that upper-level bureaucrats have accrued after years of promotions. Power, as it is seen, comes in the control of government funds and resources, and of ideas about how they should be used. Allow any ideas from outside the bureaucracy, and that monopoly is weakened.

Many think-tankers are understandably cynical about influencing the Indian government, given the power structure. But, comfortable in research positions, most thinkers outside the government do not seek to divest officials or bureaucrats of their hard earned clout. Rather, the goal of the trade is to do what is most beneficial for India, its people, and its future.

Despite our criticism, think tank bureaucracies often mirror those of government: there is minimal integration or cross-pollination; economists, education planners, climate scientists, development experts, security analysts, and others work in silos, and ideas remain in disciplinary stovepipes. The end product is work that uncomfortably straddles theory and practice and that is easily ignored by government.

There are ways to influence government without necessarily challenging its power structures: include people across disciplines to generate work that is so good that it cannot be ignored, and use the system to change it. Think tanks need to stop waiting for others to listen and make themselves a part of the action—the center of the action if need be.

A parallel from the United States is relevant. The Project on National Security Reform (PNSR) was a joint initiative started by two think-tanks: The Center for the Study of the President and The Hudson Institute. PNSR united academics, national security experts, former officials, industry, civil society and citizen groups, active politicians and those waiting in the wings, serving bureaucrats and others across the political spectrum. The group was tasked with comprehensively analyzing the national security architecture of the United States, assessing its strengths and weaknesses, making recommendations for how to improve it, and developing a strategy for implementing the recommendations. With so many active stake-holders from across the board, the project had diverse, creative thinking and broad access to (open-source) resources and information.

Most importantly, because such a broad constituency was a part of the process, a broad constituency also had an interest in making the most important component of the project come to fruition: implementing the recommendations and making the vision a reality.

The “revolving door” of the US government, in which scholars, officials, academics, and bureaucrats routinely trade places, merits both caution and praise. It has led to think tanks being pigeon-holed by dogma and persuasion, compromising academic integrity, and to unmerited corporate and ideological influence on government.

But more importantly, and more instructively for India, think-tanks in the US have more concrete visions and aims, and accordingly, better understandings of their role in public policy discourse. This has enabled creative, alternative, and necessary ideas to filter into public discourse and into bureaucracies, shaking up government when it needs it most.

In India’s case, this filtration is particularly necessary. As Satish Misra, Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, says, many of India’s elected officials “have rural backgrounds and are relatively underexposed” to the nuances of “national and international affairs.” Think tanks should help fill this intellectual void.

India is at the edge of global power. It has everything, but not necessarily in the right place. Let us take our own advice and think about how we do things; integrate and shake up our stove-piped thinking by including people from outside our compartments as we form ideas; forge a vision, and finally and most importantly, make our visions realities. For any worries about financing, most of this would not cost a thing—just a change of mind.

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