The growing tribe of think tanks in India

The quality of output and influence in policymaking have been disappointing


Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

In order to give a flavour of how important think tanks in Washington DC have been to the policymakers, Peter W. Singer, an American political scientist, once wrote: “...when President Reagan took office in 1981, he quickly gave every member of his cabinet an 1,100-page book from the Heritage Foundation, Mandate for Leadership, that provided an outline for conservative principles he wished to enact. Of its 2,000 recommendations, roughly 60% came to fruition— ‘which is why Mr. Reagan’s tenure was 60 percent successful,’ leading conservative William F. Buckley Jr. later quipped.” The think tanks in India are nowhere near that influential. But their numbers are growing. Last week, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) opened its sixth international centre in New Delhi.

An annual compilation done by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP) of the University of Pennsylvania pegged the number of think tanks in India at 192 and 280 in its 2014 and 2015 versions, respectively. With this rapid surge, India has leapfrogged Germany to become the country with the fourth highest number of think tanks, behind the UK (288), China (435) and the US (1,835). The growing numbers notwithstanding, the quality of output and level of influence in policymaking—the two are not entirely unrelated—have been underwhelming. In the TTCSP rankings of 2015, only one—Centre for Civil Society—found a place in the top 100. Another five figured in the top 150.

The “overarching reason” for the poor performance of Indian think tanks, argue Amitabh Mattoo and Rory Medcalf in a chapter on think tanks and universities in the recently compiled The Oxford Handbook of Indian Foreign Policy, “has been government’s determination, particularly within its powerful bureaucracy, to jealously hold the policy reins.” The lack of funding from sources other than government has also been a major problem.

The government-funded think tanks are not seen as objective enough and the rest do not find enough resources to invest in quality people and peripatetic projects. Of late, the sources of funding have diversified with the arrival of foreign private foundations such as Ford Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Indian corporate groups have also made a late appearance. Another healthy recent trend has been top foreign think tanks like Brookings Institution and CEIP opening centres in India.

The Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), the oldest Indian think tank, was set up in 1943. Most of the early think tanks had some level of government involvement. ICWA, for instance, is answerable to a governing body headed by the vice-president of India and includes the minister of external affairs among its members. The National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) came about in 1956 as a public-private partnership; the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, set up in 1965, is funded by the ministry of defence; and the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy was jointly established by the ministry of finance, the Planning Commission, several state governments and academicians in 1976. According to a 2014 study by James G. McGann of TTCSP, more than 45% of the think tanks now are independent and autonomous. This is not to say that these institutes do not avail funds from the government for different kinds of projects and collaborative activities.

Apart from issues of quality and funding, the skewed geographical spread is also an area of concern. Capital cities tend to attract think tanks for entirely known reasons. In the US, DC alone houses close to 400 think tanks, but this is less than 22% of the total number in the country. Other states such as Massachusetts, California, New York and Virginia host more than 100 think tanks each. In India, however, Delhi accounts for—according to McGann—more than 42% of the think tanks in India. As the states now account for more than half the total government expenditure in India, the need for a greater number of think tanks—and of a better quality—in states cannot be overstated.

While a few good institutions have cropped up outside Delhi, a lot more needs to be done. This should not just be left to the state governments; policy entrepreneurs, private investors, foundations and business groups should also set their eyes on state capitals and other important urban centres across India.

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