In 2009, Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Washington DC, wrote a scholarly piece titled “Developing India’s Foreign Policy ‘Software’”. Markey’s piece was a stinging criticism of India’s foreign policy establishment which he argued is hindering the country from achieving great power status. Among the sectors he criticised were the think-tanks in the country, which he said are incapable of producing policy-relevant research. The piece attracted immediate attention of the then national security advisor, who asked his support office to prepare a detailed comment. As expected, a mostly apologetic reaction was prepared and quite predictably, very little has changed since then.
In this backdrop, the January 2012 listing of world’s top 30 think-tanks by the University of Pennsylvania and the absence of a single Indian think-tank in the list is critical. Of the 292 Indian research institutions which were part of the 6,545 think-tanks in 182 countries that were considered for creating the list, only one (Centre for Policy Research) made it to the list of top 10 institutes in Asia. None of India’s research institutes incidentally figured in the listing of top 50 Security and International Affairs think-tanks.
It is widely accepted that Indian research organisations have done exceedingly well in fields such as science, engineering and management. What then explains the state of affairs in the field of international affairs, even when think-tanks purported to be specialising in this area have mushroomed in recent years? Markey argued that India’s think-tanks lack sufficient access to the information or resources required to conduct high-quality, policy-relevant scholarship. This is almost a common complaint among the researchers. The iron walls created by the ministries and departments are almost impenetrable and very little interaction takes place between the scholars and the bureaucracy. For the bureaucracy, which thinks it knows all and does not need any external intervention, it makes little difference. The sorry state of affairs continues in spite of the fact that both home and external affairs ministries are in serious need of subject matter experts.
While the government opinion on think-tanks might be somewhat justified, considering the fact that social science research with paltry pay packages attract only the mediocre, the ministries too have played a damaging role by selecting similarly mediocre leadership for the think-tanks they fund. More often that not, such selections have been made for reasons other than quality. People with little training and exposure to the field of research have been periodically installed as chiefs of prominent think-tanks. Invariably, what they have managed to churn out by their select team of researchers has been highly predictable.
As far as influencing policy-making is concerned, the government-run think-tanks are perceived to be slightly better placed by being members of semi-official ‘task forces’ on a variety of issues. On most occasions, however, such exercises have been little more than facades. Reports of such ‘task forces’ are hardly considered worthwhile by the same government which funds them. There also have been occasions on which the bureaucracy has stepped in to delay or cancel the publication of these reports on the ground of being too sensitive.
For the non-government think-tanks, it is an uphill task of making their presence felt to the largely lackadaisical babus. Markey argued for increased availability of funds for the think-tanks. At one level, funds aren’t so much a problem for most of the government-run entities. Even for the private ones, whose primary activities are organising workshops and conferences, it is widely accepted that getting official funds for such jamborees, both inside the country and abroad, are far easier than extracting them for some serious policy-relevant work. Ministries spend enormous amount of funds on such activities. Unfortunately, no one has bothered to question the utility of these periodic exercises.
In short, there is a clear lack of vision as far as making research of existing think-tanks policy-relevant is concerned. The reality of the limited wisdom within the government not being regularly supplemented by academic rigour from outside is bound to affect, as Markey opined, India’s aspirations of becoming a global power.
There are different ways to take the bitter pill. The easiest way of course is to simply reject the University of Pennsylvania listing as being an imperialist construct, out to denigrate the developing world. It is convenient to be enthralled by the achievements of our make-believe world. Such reactions have already emerged. There are odd think-tanks in India which continue to do good work. However, as a comment on a social networking website summed up: “A rose here and a jasmine there, do not make a garland.”
This article appeared at ExpressBuzz and is reprinted with permission.