Polaris | On India’s Think Tanks

The government, armed services, media, and business community must shoulder some of the blame for the state of India’s think tanks.

Having worked for three public policy institutes in Washington and closely with half a dozen more, and having interacted in some capacity with almost every Indian strategic think tank, I naturally have some strong views on their development and future. So I was intrigued by the results of the latest annual Global Go To Think Tank Index produced by the University of Pennsylvania (in full disclosure, I contributed to last year’s survey). Unlike  previous editions, this year’s index received some attention in India, with the media registering that no Indian think tank featured in the world’s top 30. Jason Miks, editor of the online publication The Diplomat, also wrote a post on the subject:

At their best, think tanks can be a hotbed of ideas for government to draw upon, and if India has aspirations toward looking past its neighborhood and stepping up on the global stage it will need to draw upon the vigorous exchange and debate of ideas and policy proposals that such research centers can offer. And yet clearly, in the eyes of their peers, Indian think tanks lack the rigor and influence of a Germany, Canada or indeed Kenya, at least according to the latest list.

I’m going to quote here at some length from one of our writers on this issue from a couple of years back:

“Apart from (the) persistence of endemic poverty and poor infrastructure, India faces other critical challenges in its search for great power status: its acute shortage of critical human capital. At one level, the country can justifiably claim that it has some institutions of higher education which can compete with their peers on a global basis. But these institutions are mostly confined to the realms of science, engineering and management and despite the existence of these centers of excellence, mediocrity is the hallmark of many of India’s other educational institutions.

“For example, with the possible exception of the discipline of economics, India lags woefully behind in the other social sciences such as sociology, anthropology and political science. Few, if any, significant contributions to these fields of intellectual endeavor have emerged from India in recent decades. Most scholarship in these areas is either derivative, or worse, still mostly descriptive and hortatory.”

It’s the kind of damning indictment I’ve come to expect from those engaged in the China vs India debate that rages on our site and elsewhere. And yet these words were written by one of our Indian Decade bloggers, Sumit Ganguly.

And he’s right. When we’re sourcing material for the site, too often we find Indian think tank analyses littered with basic errors, unsubstantiated claims or rehashings of long debunked theories (Flashpoints contributor James Holmes is just one of many to have expressed frustration at how a likely non-event involving the Chinese and Indian navies last summer is still treated as fact in Indian media and policy circles).

It goes without saying that India has an enormous amount to offer the international community. But there’s no excuse for its absence on a list like this. [The Diplomat]

I want to first be clear that the results of the University of Pennsylvania report are not as damning an indictment as they may appear, because the methodology used to compile the rankings is unscientific and deeply flawed. The study is based on the opinions of select experts, and as such, there are enormous fluctuations in the rankings each year. Factors such as operating budgets, number of scholars, number of citations, and social media metrics are not used, even though these are all important and quantifiable factors that speak to the quality and influence of public policy institutions. In past editions of the survey, India’s premier defence think tank IDSA has – for example – been ranked rather high among Asian think tanks, and there is no clear explanation as to why its rating has deteriorated over time. Another example: note that the rankings for regional think tanks do not correspond to  the overall rankings at all, which speaks to some of the methodological shortcomings of this survey. So I would not put too much stock into the University of Pennsylvania study as evidence, particularly in comparing Indian institutions in quality or influence to those of other Asian countries and the wider developing world.

That said, this represents a valuable opportunity to discuss why India – despite having more think tanks than any country other than China and the United States, and a culture of debate and openness – still lags in this realm. The quality of Indian academia, that Professor Ganguly focuses upon, is a real problem, and most think tank products are still largely descriptive – relying only on public source information of sometimes dubious quality – rather than comprehensive or analytical.  But that is only one factor. In fact, the blame for India’s sub-par think tanks lies in equal measure with India’s government, its media, and its business community.

The success of think tanks depends as much on the consumers of information as the producers. While the Indian government has made welcome efforts in recent years to reach out to think tanks, it is still incredibly limited in doing so. Serving diplomats, bureaucrats, and military officers are often unable or unwilling to make presentations, limited by their own capacity constraints, their own research abilities, the possible  political consequences, and strict limits to their jurisdictions. When IDSA was first formed, serving military officers were banned from coming into contact with it. That policy has since been remedied, but the culture has not entirely dissipated. By contrast, serving military officers in the United States interact regularly with most security think tanks, making presentations, contracting out research, and bringing in scholars as external sounding boards. Think tanks, for example, played a vital role in developing the surge strategy in Iraq. In Europe, the model is different, but even then, think tanks with strong party affiliations provide mechanisms for aspiring political leaders to hone their skills and expertise. India’s government and military – in other words – must be more open and receptive, and far more knowledgeable about how to use think tanks to advance their objectives if they are to succeed. Recent interviews I conducted with officials at India’s Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi suggest that many Indian diplomats are completely unaware of the role and potential value of think tanks.

Secondly, the Indian media has not yet produced a public debate in India that clamors for greater information and insight on international and security affairs. In a media environment dominated by political theatre, Bollywood gossip, cricket scores, and corporate quarterly returns, there is little appetite for world or defence news, which is often sidelined in favour of reporting that generates higher ratings or readership. Consequently, scholars with expertise and quality research on important but niche topics – when it is produced – rarely receive the attention they deserve. For example, India, by virtue of its own nuclear program, has produced a very capable and knowledgeable cohort of experts on nuclear strategy and non-proliferation, of higher quality than almost anywhere else in the world. But their views never received adequate attention, particularly outside of India. The media has to take seriously its job of informing its readers or viewers if think tanks are to become more effective and have a greater impact.

Third, what is rarely understood and appreciated is that the world of think tanks, like any other industry, is driven by funding. Brookings and Carnegie were established only by the generous donations of industrial oligarchs with a keen interest in shaping public policy. Even today, both institutions receive millions of dollars in annual donations from the American corporate sector, as do most other leading American think tanks. The corporations receive tax benefits by donating to registered non-profits, and the think tanks are generally transparent about the sources of their funding and make available any research products to the wider public rather than to their sponsor alone for any competitive advantage. India’s newly rich business community has yet to make that leap in understanding the value of think tanks. From their standpoint, there are few financial incentives and the returns are often intangible. Most Indian think tanks are, consequently, chronically underfunded and under-resourced. If India is to have world-class think tanks, the incentives must be made clear to business leaders, and they must fill the funding breach. India is in this regard unlike China, which due to the role of the state, has think tanks that are primarily state-affiliated and -funded.

None of this is meant to excuse the overall quality of think tanks in India. Given the level of existing expertise, the English language faculty of its scholars, and the openness of Indian society, India’s think tanks should be playing a much greater role both nationally and internationally. The absence of analytical rigour and healthy institutional competition is often shocking. Domain expertise in many realms is lacking: I am often hard-pressed to come up with any leading Indian experts on important issues as diverse as the Chinese economy, Latin America, international human rights, defence budgeting, and drug trafficking. Even in areas where India boasts considerable domain expertise, such as Afghanistan, non-proliferation, or U.S.-India relations, the bench is incredibly thin. That said, the problems afflicting India’s think tanks are most certainly wider and deeper than one is often made to believe.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.