Sunday, January 17, 2016

‘Outside ideas’ trickle in as think tanks set up base

Indrani Bagchi,

image (not from article) from

With top US think tanks setting up offices in India, the Indian marketplace for ideas is beginning to buzz. This week, Carnegie Endowment announced it would be opening its India office. It will follow Brookings Institution which has been around for a couple of years now. As the nature of Indian governance, policy-making and the international context evolves rapidly, the hope is that these outside "inputs" would help to create more "informed" decisions by government.

These think tanks are coming into India at a time when there is a flowering of Indian research organisations here. The government for long operating with brahminical inscrutability, is more welcoming of ideas, inputs and research from outside.

C Raja Mohan, founder-director of Carnegie's India office said he envisages a triad of sectors which will benefit from the think tank - "foreign policy and security, politics of India's economic reforms and the rapidly developing technology policymaking space." Brookings and Carnegie, voted the top think tanks in the world, have extensive experience in producing policy inputs for the US government.

Indian think tanks too are evolving rapidly. The best known, Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and Centre for Policy Research (CPR) will inundate your inbox, and have increased their government footprint in recent years. Their playing fields mostly remain in the realm of foreign and security policy with a clutch of former diplomats and military officers taking the lead in the ideas and opinions bazaar, relying on their long engagement with government.

There are also a growing number of organisations working closely with the government in its public diplomacy outreach, holding seminars and big think-fests. The MEA-MOD sponsored IDSA and ICWA are the official organisations in this field. But this year, MEA is working with ORF to execute one of its three flagship events - the Raisina Dialogues in spring, and with Mumbai-based Gateway House for the Gateway of India Dialogues on geo-strategic and geo-economic issues respectively.

Samir Saran of ORF said the Raisina Dialogue this year would feature about 100 speakers from 30 countries, but in a few years they hope to scale it up to become a second Shangrila Dialogue (organised by London-based IISS) which prompts defence ministers and experts from round the world to flock to Singapore every summer.

ORF has also got into the pleasurable business of Track 1.5 dialogues with select countries. Saran says they now conduct dialogues with France, Australia, BRICS and now Egypt. The frontrunner in this area is the Ananta Aspen Centre which has been running the longest and possibly most influential dialogues with US, China, Israel and Turkey, Singapore and Bhutan and an India-Japan-US trilateral, which paved the way for the official dialogue that started a few years later.

The government used think tanks extensively during climate change negotiations, where, the space is filled by specialised organizations like CEEW, CSE and TERI. Saran of ORF says "some sectors need outside expertise like outer space, Indian Ocean etc. We are developing our expertise in these areas."

How does the government evaluate the inputs from think tanks? The foreign ministry is the biggest consumer of these ideas from 'outside'. In the last year, foreign secretary S Jaishankar has placed additional responsibility on a virtually defunct Policy Planning division. The ministry has broken new ground by hiring consultants not employed by the government. But in the new atmosphere of the state interacting with think tanks, the experience for government has not been one of unalloyed satisfaction.

"There are some brilliant minds out there," said an official on condition of anonymity. "But most of the research papers we see are too theoretical or academic in nature. We need them to be consistent and more policy relevant." Giving examples from the US, he said academics like Ashley Tellis provide detailed policy inputs to the US government. "We need more of those. For this, we need research organisations to talk to government much more." Researchers say government officials are very hard to access, and this limits their sources.

On the brighter side, foreign and security policies have many voices in the marketplace today. It's trade, commerce etc that have very few outside think tanks providing inputs. The government has its own - ICRIER, NIPFP and Institute of Economic Growth, but in the private space there are few of the number-crunchers that governments could use.

Raja Mohan says partly this is because governments have been unusually welcoming of outside economic thinking and economists within government. From P C Mahalanobis to Raghuram Rajan, India has been very accommodating of different economic brains. However, countries like South Korea show much more is possible - their economic and trade think tanks provide crucial inputs to their trade negotiators which may explain why Korea is more willing to engage the world on trade issues, unlike India.

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