In the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks, most commentators lamented the Indian government’s ineffectual response to the repeated assaults on India’s territorial integrity. They pointed out that the underlying issue is India’s weak foreign and defence policy, limited to tackling immediate threats without a cohesive long-term vision. Similarly, in other areas of policy—from higher education to health—statist thinking dominates in a desert of intellectual barrenness. From a policy perspective, it is hard to distinguish one government from another.
Irrespective of the results, things are unlikely to change after the next general election as major political parties lack a detailed set of policies that can propel major government initiatives. Parties have reduced policy to sloganeering and even manifestos are increasingly perfunctory documents —short on actual policy and ignored after elections anyway. So, while there are grand promises— from eradicating terror to removing poverty—how exactly these would be achieved is left to the mercies of career bureaucrats.
Bureaucrats have their own axes to grind. And in a system which discourages fresh thinking and limits lateral entry, bureaucrats are more likely to embrace stability than adopt innovative thinking.
It is here that the role of think tanks and policy institutes becomes important. By definition, think tanks are an ideas industry—their output is policy ideas. Or as Don Abelson argues: “Think tanks are idea brokers. They might create their own or simply market the ideas of others—regardless, they put those ideas into an easily digestible form, educate the public and provide expertise to policy-makers.”
The need for these institutions stems from two fundamental weaknesses in all modern systems of governance—the constraint of time and the need for specialization. Think tanks specialize in policy research that policymakers —both politicians and bureaucrats—do not have the time to do. Moreover, in an increasingly complex world, policymaking is too specialized a task to be left only to political leaders and bureaucrats—many simply lack the skills while others are constrained by officious culture. By acting as a sounding board for new ideas, think tanks ensure that public officials have a range of policy options available to them.
Most importantly, think tanks foster an important tenet of a democratic society, that the process of policymaking—from advocacy to implementation and evaluation—is the responsibility of civil society and its organizations, and not merely of the government. Policy institutes can present complex issues in ways that can easily be debated by a wide cross-section of society.
Since the Fabian Society was founded in the UK in 1884, think tanks have also served as the prime training ground for numerous political leaders. Indeed, many who formed part of US President Barack Obama’s “brain-team” have seamlessly moved into the new administration to implement the policies they favoured. The Indian media and civil society argue endlessly about the lack of young and talented political leaders. But good political leaders are not created in an intellectual vacuum. By providing opportunities to participate directly in policy research, think tanks would facilitate India’s democratic development as they groom young and gifted individuals for political careers.
The abysmal state of policy debate in India is a direct result of the limited number of independent think tanks. A thriving ideas industry is essential to the development of a high-quality democracy. The need is even more pressing since India is still a developing country—considering its size, population and uniqueness, its challenges are not amenable to supplanted ideas but require fresh thinking—uniquely attuned to its own needs. Unfortunately, in India, the importance of think tanks has been ignored by politicians and civil society.
India does have its share of policy institutes. But they are largely owned and funded by the government. Not surprisingly, most turn into retirement clubs for bureaucrats and generals.
While government research is important, policy innovation is far more likely to originate in independent think tanks. In order to remain relevant, think tanks must offer alternative policy formulations that go against conventional thinking and challenge government’s exclusionary claims on policymaking. In contrast, government-funded think tanks have little inclination to advance bold ideas; they tend to defend status quo, are inextricably linked to their funding sources and are vulnerable to political pressures.
In an academic study of think tanks spanning 20 countries, James G. McGann and Erik C. Johnson conclude that “open, democratic societies provide the best conditions for independent policy analysis and advice”. India fulfils all the conditions needed for a flourishing think-tank community. What it has lacked is commitment from civil society— both pedagogical as well as financial. After the Mumbai attacks, civil society has shown encouraging signs of ending its disengagement with governance. It would be befitting if this positive energy is directed towards the creation of think tanks—institutions that can act as catalysts for change and transform the policymaking process in India.
Rohit Pradhan is associated with and Sushant K. Singh is a contributing editor of Pragati— The Indian National Interest Review. Comments are welcome at email@example.com