Why Think Tanks Matter

This piece was written with Satish Misra of the Observer Research Foundation and originally published as ‘Why think tanks are ignored‘ by The Tribune, of Chandigarh, in September 2009.

Concerns have been expressed on the role and relevance of think tanks in India. A former US Department of State official, Daniel Markey, who has been studying India for some time, recently observed that India’s rise as a great power is constrained by the country’s own foreign policy establishment and lack of policy relevant scholarship by think tanks.

The Group of Ministers (GoM), set up after the Kargil war, had similarly pointed out that “there is a need to ensure that the government’s policy and decision making processes are informed by the findings of rigorous analyses and research”.

In the information age, think tanks play a decisive role in shaping public policy, public opinion and official decisions. It becomes all the more significant in the system of competitive politics and particularly in a democratic polity.

For India, which is transiting from a feudal cultural society to an industrial cultural society, the role of think tanks is all the more relevant. New ideas and approaches to the prevailing social, economic, political and religious problems will help in accelerating the transitional process.

In India, where elected representatives often have rural backgrounds and are under-exposed to the nuances of national and international affairs, think tanks assume greater significance. A systematic and structured exposure to think tanks will make elected representatives better policy-makers, law-framers and executioners.

Think tanks in India should evolve an appropriate strategy and plan for ensuring a structured interaction with not only elected representatives but also with political aspirants like student union leaders.

Every discerning politician or a bureaucrat knows fully well that ideas have consequences. Globally, policy framers look for advice and counsel of scholars from think tanks, which understand this reality and thus are able to shape policies and politics with their innovative ideas and approach.

Think tanks play an important role in the policy process, but that does not only mean interacting with the government; they have a critical audience among scholars, media persons, the private sector and the common man.

The reach and impact of think tanks could be gauged with the return of conservative politics in the early 80s of the last century and decreasing appeal of communism. The intellectual arguments and policy proposals that contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the success of the West were prepared and articulated by think tanks.

The regimes of President Ronald Reagan in the United States , Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Helmut Kohl in the then West Germany are some of the concrete examples of the role that right-wing think tanks had played. This led to the privatisation of public sector enterprises.

Experts agree that think tanks can play a decisive role in helping India secure its rightful place in the international order. But “does India have the intellectual tools to meet” the challenges of internal strife, terrorism, proxy wars, a disturbed neighbourhood, the threat of conventional war in the shadow of nuclear weapons, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and piracy on the high seas? asks IDSA Director General N S Sisodia. The answer is an “emphatic NO”.

Though there are 124 think tanks in the country, most are of “indifferent standards”. In a global survey undertaken by the University of Pennsylvania in 2008, only the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) figures at the 46th position on the list of 50 non-US think tanks.

India’s international studies and strategic affairs think tanks are sandwiched between a university system in crisis and an indifferent policy establishment. As Sisodia says, they suffer from both demand and supply constraints. There is hardly any demand for their output, either because it is not regarded as relevant or because key officials believe that they already know what is there to know, says Sisodia.

Over and above, there is a systemic problem with the majority of the Indian think tanks— reconciling theory with practice — as they consist mostly of retired bureaucrats and young academics. That is why think tanks often produce work which is easily ignored.

The Observer Research Foundation, for one, is striving to bridge this gap. The Centre for Policy Research (CPR), set up in 1973, has launched an “Accountability Initiative” with the objective of improving governance in the country in which citizens can participate even from their homes.

The work of the Tata Energy & Resource Institute (TERI) has touched crucial issues of urban planning and rural energy needs by suggesting innovative approaches to the existing problems.

But these initiatives need to be encouraged. The government should facilitate the flow of information by opening its archives to scholars and its minds to ideas from outside.

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