India's most influential think-tanks

  • Prashant Jha, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Aug 16, 2015 12:30 IST
(Illustration: Jayanto)

New Delhi is not Washington - or not yet.

The US capital is known for its think-tanks. They are often aligned to one of the two parties, the Democrats or the Republicans. Each time, there is a transfer of power after the elections and a new incumbent in White House, there is an exodus and influx in these institutes as sympathisers of the winning side are brought into government and those on the losing side look out for jobs in policy institutions. This lateral movement between governments, think-tanks, and even corporates lends US polity a distinct character.

New Delhi has always been more like London, albeit more closed. With a permanent bureaucracy, UK's government does not get affected too drastically by a change in who occupies the Prime Ministerial residence at 10 Downing Street. The permanent establishment in India - the officials who belong to the elite all-India services - continue to run the show and influence policy and advise political leadership. Historian Srinath Raghavan says, "In both systems it is more difficult for outsiders to impact policy, which is bureaucracy-driven. This is particularly true in the foreign policy space."

India is, however, at an interesting, though rather paradoxical, moment. On one hand, power is centralised under this government. The Prime Minister's Office is driving policy across spheres. Nowhere is this truer than in the realm of security and foreign policy, where a very limited set of powerful individuals is calling the shots. The term of the last National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), which was the only mechanism for interaction between government and experts, ended over six months ago and no one is quite sure whether it will be reconstituted.

On the other hand, the system is indicating that it is more open to outside inputs and engagement. This is reflected through three developments. One, there is the rise of the think-tank with close party affiliations. When PM Narendra Modi took office, he appointed AK Doval as National Security Advisor and Nripendra Misra as Principal Secretary. Both were closely associated with the Vivekananda International Foundation. In the past year, the India Foundation has also gained prominence. IF's driving force is Ram Madhav, a powerful BJP leader who has been laying the groundwork for the PM's foreign visits and engaging with foreign interlocutors. Key cabinet ministers are among its members.

National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. (HT photo/ Vipin Kumar)

Two, Indian businesses have begun investing in creating policy research institutes and think-tanks, and the government has been engaging with such outfits. The Observer Research Foundation is supported by Reliance; the Ananta Aspen Centre has a group of business leaders funding their operations. Foreign think-tanks too have begun setting up their India operations. Brookings now has an India office, which again is supported by wealthy Indian business leaders. And Carnegie Endowment is expected to set up a local office by next year.

Three, when Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar took over office earlier this year, he made it clear that a key priority for him would be reviving the Policy Planning division of the Ministry of External Affairs. He brought in a new Joint Secretary, and indicated that the division would have more resources. It could hire experts from outside the government; and it was tasked to enhance engagement with the city's think-tanks. The government has also appointed a new head for the MEA-supported think-tank, with a brief to ramp up its operations.

The state in India has historically been more open to outside expertise in the realm of the economy. From Manmohan Singh and Montek Singh Ahluwalia to Arvind Panagriya and Arvind Subramanian, the executive has brought in experts at the highest levels. The Niti Ayog itself has been envisaged as a think-tank.

While this has not extended to the strategic affairs space, things may slowly be changing. In this context, here's a look at the city's premier think-tanks, their areas of work, sources of funding, and role in shaping policy and engaging in wider public debates.

IDSA - inside the national-security state
After the debacle of the 1962 war with China, the government felt that it needed outside expertise on defence and security affairs. And thus was born the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA). The eminent strategic guru, K Subrahmanyam, played a key role in structuring the institute's research. A key moment in its evolution was during the debate on whether India should go nuclear. IDSA came out strongly backing the strategic choice to go nuclear, shaped larger opinion, and conveyed India's position to the global strategic community through Track 2 dialogues.

IDSA's president is the Raksha Mantri; its annual report is tabled in parliament; and the funding is entirely by the Ministry of Defence. Serving officers of the armed forces come for a period of two years to gain a wider policy perspective. The institute's infrastructure is the envy of all other think-tanks in town - its vast structure built on land leased by the government in Delhi's cantonment area includes office space, housing for scholars and staff and guest accommodation. IDSA's annual budget is about 14 crore and it has around 60 full-time researchers and scholars on its rolls.
But the direct link with government is also a weakness. It is seen as an extension of the MOD, with little autonomy.

Brigadier Rumel Dahiya, IDSA's deputy director general, however, counters this perception. "We are not a part of government, and I have never seen anyone impose a government line on IDSA. What happens is the government takes note of our research, which is mostly in the public domain. They may sometimes ask us for more specific papers which we provide. We also get to know the general line of thinking in government but do not have access to confidential papers and documents," he says.

Countering the criticism that the institute should be doing more given its resources, he said, "If you compare it to foreign think-tanks, our budget is adequate but minimal. We could send a larger number of scholars for field trips for longer duration if it increases."

IDSA's last Director General, Arvind Gupta, a former IFS officer, was appointed the Deputy National Security Advisor last year. Since then, there has been a leadership deficit at the institute as the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet has not picked a new DG.

ICWA- the diplomatic den
Set up in 1943, the Indian Council for World Affairs (ICWA) has an illustrious legacy - the Asian Relations Conference was convened here right before independence, which set the tone for Nehru's policy emphasis on Asian unity.

The ICWA's budget, according to its website, is around Rs 10 crore annually. Its chair is the Vice President of India and it is often the platform where key visiting dignitaries make their public speeches. Rajiv Bhatia, a retired diplomat, who just finished a three-year term as ICWA's director, said the council's activities included research and Track 2 exchanges. He added that, in recent years, they had made a concerted effort to work in Hindi and to reach out to the young.

But its problem, like IDSA's, is that it is only seen as an extension of the ministry, in this case the MEA.

Bhatia counters this. "The ICWA is not a government think-tank. It is answerable only to the governing body and the direction in which the research happens is academically sound," he says.

A criticism that ICWA has faced is that it has become a retiring home for diplomats. Some believe that academics should lead it as they would better understand research requirements and be inclined to shape the trajectory of younger academics.

Bhatia, however, feels that as former diplomats know the broad policy framework, they also know which areas need greater research. "It is a policy think-tank and need not be necessarily run by a professor," he says. He concedes that a serving official running the council could pose credibility issues. "Having a retired ambassador however is a good via media."

The government has recently appointed Nalin Surie, a well regarded retired diplomat, to ICWA with a brief to restructure the outfit and enhance its output. Whether Surie at ICWA - and the new appointee at IDSA - can walk the tightrope of being government supported yet independent and whether they can shore up quality will be an important test.

ORF - between government and business
If you are on any of New Delhi's think-tank mailing lists, your inbox would often be flooded with mails from the Observer Research Foundation with an invite to their events - the frequency of which has only increased. This is not surprising given that ORF has grown five times in the last five years, and now has a budget of Rs 25 crore. By annual spending alone, this makes it the biggest think-tank in town.

Samir Saran, Vice president ORF.

Conceived in 1991 by Reliance founder Dhirubhai Ambani as a platform for his policymakers, scholars and journalists of different persuasions to devise pragmatic solutions and a liberal regime they were comfortable with, ORF spent its first decade focused on internal issues of economy. Since 2000, the conversation has expanded and now 80% of ORF's work is centred on engagement with the outside world.

This, says Samir Saran, the man who has driven ORF's growth in recent years, is natural because of the interconnectedness of internal and external issues. The presence of key thinkers on foreign policy like C Raja Mohan at ORF has added to its intellectual heft.

Reliance continues to support ORF. If, in 2009, 95% of the budget was provided by the company, it is now around 65% with the foundation diversifying its sources to include the government, private corporates, foreign foundations and others. There is also a trust that the ORF reports to, which is, on paper, independent of Reliance.

This relationship with Reliance has led to a key question: is it is appropriate for private corporates to try to influence policy, especially in sectors like energy and defence where they have other commercial interests?

Saran says, "Influence is a misplaced description. It is more investing in policy research institutions. Is it our intention to keep corporate India from investing in research and public policy studies or to keep out one set of actors from the debate? Policy making must not be the monopoly of any one set of actors and in recent times, many corporations and private entities have begun to invest in this space. This is a welcome trend and the more such institutions we have, the more irrelevant this question would be."

He adds that it is only in India that private sector participation is looked down upon, whereas in the rest of the world, the ability to engage with all actors is appreciated. "Look, be it political think tanks, private think tanks or government think tanks, the more the better. Funding must be transparent; there must be no hidden strings attached; there must be full disclosure; and the research work must be professionally conducted. The consumer of research can then take an informed decision."

ORF's engagement with the government has also grown over the years. It now receives project-specific funding from the Ministry of External Affairs for studies on BRICS, Russia, climate and other thematic issues. It hosts a range of Track 2 dialogues with France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Australia, BRICS and Track 1.5 dialogues where officials from both sides are present but without a formal agenda and format. It also hosts the Indian Ocean Dialogue and Blue Economies Forum and has other projects lined up with the government.

When asked about the government relationship, and whether this kind of support would compromise its independence, Saran says, "We are acutely aware of the need to balance a proximate relationship with the government that would allow enough distance to be able to conduct research freely and yet be cordial enough so that we would be able to share insights and ideas with institutions that are best placed to make use of them." He says their approach is different from that of activists. "We believe it is possible to be critical without being adversarial."

CPR - between academia and policy

Few individuals evoke the kind of respect that Pratap Bhanu Mehta does in India's public sphere. A political theorist, constitutional scholar, policy analyst and prolific public commentator whose writings are taken seriously by those in power, Mehta has a full time day job - President and CEO of the Centre for Policy Research.

Over lunch at the Malcha Marg market close to the CPR office in Chanakyapuri, Mehta says he sees the role of CPR as being an 'honest broker in a public argument'. For him, policy impact is not necessarily the hallmark of a successful think-tank. Mehta believes that the democratic public, rather than the state, needs to be the intended audience. "There is also a difference between the government listening to you and the government agreeing exactly with what you suggest. I would not like to carry the presumptive authority that the government in a democracy must agree."

CPR itself is somewhat distinct as it is a cross between a think-tank and a research institution. "There are people here who would have been happy in universities too but find the independent research space congenial to work." CPR has, Mehta says, historically been comfortable with people from different sides of the argument being in the same organisation with the operating assumption that it is on good faith. There is no CPR line and scholars are free to pursue their independent interests.

The centre now has an annual budget of Rs16 crore. As an Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) recognised institution, it receives support from the government. It also gets funding from foreign foundations and private philanthropists.

Commenting on debates around foreign support, Mehta points out that institutions like the Ford Foundation were important in creating an independent, social science intellectual system in India. "From the Law Institute to CSDS to CPR, Ford played a big role. The key is funding should not have any strings attached."

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president and CEO of the Centre for Policy Research.

In the realm of foreign and security policy, Mehta, former diplomat Shyam Saran, economist Rajiv Kumar, and historian Srinath Raghavan - all at CPR now - were a part of the team that drafted Non-Alignment 2.0 (2012), an influential policy document on the direction Indian foreign policy should take. Saran was the chair of the National Security Advisory Board, with Raghavan as a member till recently. Brahma Chellaney and Bharat Karnad of the centre are also important voices in foreign policy debates. CPR also has expertise in climate change policy.

India Foundation - the inner chamber
With a board that includes the country's railway minister Suresh Prabhu, MOS for finance Jayant Sinha, MOS for commerce Nirmala Sitharaman, the BJP's powerful general secretary Ram Madhav, BJP Rajya Sabha MP MJ Akbar, and the son of the National Security Advisor, Shaurya Doval, there is little doubt that India Foundation is today the country's most powerful think-tank.

When the IF convenes a meeting, everyone who is invited turns up. Just last week, RN Ravi, the government's interlocutor for the Naga talks, addressed a closed door IF roundtable. Ravi himself was a part of IF activities till he was appointed interlocutor. Often held on Wednesdays, such meetings are moderated by MJ Akbar and have been addressed by the NSA, Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar, PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti, and Walter Anderson, a scholar specialising on the Sangh.

The IF has four core events every year. The India Ideas Conclave, held in Goa, is an attempt to create a new 'ecosystem of the intellectual right'; the Counter Terrorism Conference, held in Jaipur, saw the cream of the security establishment and global experts participate; the Indian Economy Convention, organised by Shaurya Doval, was addressed by Modi before the elections and will be held next month in Delhi; and the Dharma-Dhamma conference will bring together 'oriental religions', Hinduism and Buddhism, in Indore this year.

Operating out of a small apartment on Hailey Road, the line between the government, party and the think-tank is clearly blurred in IF's case - with overlapping loyalties of members. Unlike the US, where those who join government leave positions in think-tanks, that has not happened here. IF sources claim that is not necessary as the ministers are not receiving any salaries. This overlap makes it difficult to judge exactly how it influences policy. It happens as much through the informal network - a casual chat and phone conversation - as through any structured dialogue. IF sources are keen to clarify that it is not a party think-tank. The Shyama Prasad Research Foundation is officially linked to the BJP but it is mostly dormant. So the IF is as close to an influential party-affiliated think-tank as India has seen.

For its big events, the IF collaborates with outside institutions including state governments, public bodies and private foundations. Sources claim that it has limited resources, only a few full time staffers and does not engage in primary research. HT could not access the exact annual budget of the outfit. Doval was travelling outside the country when contacted for this story.

VIF - foot in the PMO
With both NSA Doval and the PM's Principal Secretary Nripendra Misra having been closely associated with the Vivekananda International Foundation, it is no surprise that this became the most talked about think-tank in town when the new government was formed.

Built on land provided by the PV Narasimha Rao government, the vast and spacious VIF office is located in the city's diplomatic enclave, Chanakyapuri. VIF's core activities revolve around international relations, defence, economy, governance and historical and civilisational studies. In the last year, among other activities, it has engaged deeply with Chinese and US delegations and had Track 2 exchanges. It hosted the British and French defence ministers, convened meetings with over 20 foreign ambassadors, and hosted many seminars on relations with Pakistan.

General NC Vij, former army chief who took over as VIF director from Doval, believes the USP of the outfit is that it has a large number of senior people who have served in government. "They bring in vast amounts of experience. They are listened to because they are not prone to flights of fancy and provide practical advice."

When asked if the presence of Doval in the PMO means that the VIF is close to the BJP and now the government, Vij says, "Doval had a strong independent identity even before he actively led the VIF. He was, after all, Director of IB. The government needs good professionals."

Vij points out that it is a 'small circle' and people know each other but categorically asserts that the VIF is 'independent' and 'apolitical'. "We have no links with any party. We don't really see ourselves as influencing policy. Our role is to throw up ideas, offer opinions, and then it is up to the government to use it or not."

The engagement with government however takes other forms. Reports of key seminars - with the Chinese ambassador or Pakistani high commissioner - are sent to authorities with relevant recommendations. Next month, the VIF is hosting a Global Hindu Buddhist Conference on Conflict Avoidance and Environmental Protection. This will be inaugurated by PM Modi, who has made the theme of Buddhism an important element of his cultural diplomacy.

The VIF takes no money from the government. "We are funded by the Vivekananda Kendra," says Vij. The Kendra is headquartered in Kanyakumari and depends on donations. The VIF's annual budget, according to its annual report, in 2013-14 was a little less than Rs3 crore.

Ananta Aspen Centre - convening dialogues
The first thing that Kiran Pasricha, the executive director of the Ananta Aspen Centre, likes to clarify is that the organisation is not a branch office or an India chapter of the Aspen Institute.

Run out of Thapar House on Janpath, the Centre was initially a result of collaboration between CII and Aspen - but over the years, while it has relationships with both, it has evolved into an autonomous entity. It views itself as being primarily a convening body for discussions on diverse themes with a diverse set of interlocutors, and not as a research-based outfit. Ananta has a good relationship with the government. It convenes over ten strategic dialogues with countries like China, Japan, Singapore, Israel, Turkey, and Bhutan.

Some have become Track 1.5 in nature, because of the presence of a relevant Joint Secretary from the MEA or the Indian ambassador when it is happening outside the country. Visiting delegations also get to meet the local government, including senior ministers. And events hosted by the centre have seen high level government participation including of NSA Doval and cabinet ministers. Its current chair is SK Lambah, a former diplomat who served as the special envoy for Pakistan.

It takes no money from the government but derives its support from members of the Board of Trustees. The board includes top industrialists and business leaders like Gautam Thapar, CK Birla, Sanjiv Goenka, Naina Lal Kidwai, and Anu Aga.

When asked if this means that the centre is a medium for Indian business to push its interests, Pasricha is emphatic. "No. Our funding is not from any one business house but is diversified. Our board also includes MPs and distinguished intellectuals who guide programmes. And none or our events have been used by any delegates to push their business interests," he says.

Revenues are also raised through a separate organization, the Ananta Centre, which is for profit. Its chair is Jamshyd Godrej. The organisation also runs leadership programmes. The combined budget of both is about Rs 5.5 crore.

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