The Print
New Delhi

For the last two decades, the Shangri-La Dialogue was seen as a platform where a rapidly growing China would place its strategic worldview on an international stage. But in the past six years, the Raisina Dialogue, co-hosted by India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), has emerged as India’s answer to it.

This, however, isn’t a one-off or just about one annual event.

Beyond its razzmatazz and that of some other events in the same league that see heads of states, diplomats and global policymakers converge on India, there is a fundamental change in the nature of the country’s think tank ecosystem. 

From the Raisina Dialogue to the opinion pages of leading national dailies, there has been a marked rise in the visibility of think tanks in India when it comes to influencing policy and shaping public debate over the last few years. There is an increasing perception that the old-school generalist commentators are having to share space with domain-specific analysts operating in more empirically and theoretically driven frameworks.

The perception is corroborated by numbers. According to the Global Go-To Think Tank Index 2020 prepared by the University of Pennsylvania, US, India is home to 612 think tanks — making it the third largest country in terms of the number of think tanks, after the United States of America (2,203) and China (1,413). 

The same study lists five Indian think tanks among the top 100 to watch in 2021 — the ORF at number 5, Dialogue India at 9, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) at 23, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations at 47, and Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) at 61.

These include names such as Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a former president and chief executive at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR); Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS); Samir Saran of ORF; Yamini Aiyar of CPR; Dhruva Jaishankar of ORF’s US initiative; Shaurya Doval of the India Foundation; Nitin Pai of the Takshashila Institution; Shamika Ravi of Brookings (US and its erstwhile India chapter); and Constantino Xavier of the Centre for Social and Economic Progress (the new avatar of Brookings India).

Other prominent names to emerge from this ecosystem include Rudra Chaudhuri and Suyash Rai of Carnegie India, Arghya Sengupta of Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, Chakshu Roy of PRS Legislative Research, and Major General Anil Verma (Retd) of Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR).

To be sure, think tanks have existed in India since pre-Independence and the space saw expansion in the 1960s and 1970s — some of India’s leading think tanks, like the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), the CSDS, the IDSA, and the CPR were established in 1943, 1963, 1965, and 1973, respectively.

However, a number of factors, including India’s expanding global footprint, the need for specialisation in governance, the acknowledgement that career bureaucracy may not have answers to complex 21st-century governance questions, and the private sector taking baby steps into this growing business of ideas, have come together to particularly stoke their rise in the last decade or so.

Think tanks as the answer to generalists  

The Global Go-To Think Tank Index defines think tanks as “public policy research analysis and engagement organisations that generate policy-oriented research, analysis and advice on domestic and international issues, thereby enabling policymakers and the public to make informed decisions about public policy”. 

Unlike her western counterparts, India has seen its think tanks mushroom more prominently over the past decade.  

“I think that think tanks in India have had a fairly vibrant engagement in policymaking from the beginning,” said Yamini Aiyar, president and chief executive at CPR. “Even if those institutions were not defined as such, they were providing applied research to policy problems, and generating evidence-based debates to policymaking,” she added. 

“So, their need was always felt, but in the last few years, we are seeing them become more a part of the public debate, and that is a function of several factors, including the broadening of media, op-ed pages becoming more democratic, and a general building up of a culture of translating research into public dialogue.”

“While I was at the ICWA, I could well realise how the think tank was changing in this country. I could see the competition was growing”

Veteran diplomat Rajiv Bhatia, who was director general of ICWA from 2012 to 2015, and is now a distinguished fellow at Gateway House, said: “While I was at the ICWA, I could well realise how the think tank was changing in this country. I could see the competition was growing, development of research materials with government support was gradually taking place, and now we see mushrooming of think tanks.” 

He added: “This is a healthy phenomenon, this is a space that is now evolving fast. The quantum of research is also growing while we are also facing competition from foreign think tanks.”

If for the US and Europe, it was the end of post-World War II consensus and overhaul of the welfare state that contributed to the growth of these organisations, in India, the second generation of think tanks, and their actual rise, is largely associated with the liberalisation of the economy and the subsequent expansion of the country’s global footprint since the 1990s. 

“It has been largely in the last three decades post-liberalisation that think tanks in India have emerged in a big way as a result of the economy opening up, and becoming more complex, and the growing acknowledgement that you cannot just rely on the bureaucracy for specialised policymaking,” said Shamika Ravi, a non-resident senior fellow of the Governance Studies Program at the Brookings Institution, Washington. 

In addition, there is also a change in the nature of governance, which has necessitated more dialogue between the government and outside experts. 

“The nature of 21st-century governance is complex. From climate change to financial markets, there is a greater need for expertise in policymaking, and that is why we see more outsourcing of thinking by the government,” Ravi added, pointing towards increasing engagement of consulting firms by the government in direct policymaking.

“Policymakers have become more open to taking advice from the outside”

Harsh Pant, director, studies, and head of the Strategic Studies Programme at the ORF, agreed: “Policymakers have become more open to taking advice from the outside. The NITI Aayog is an example in itself — as the government’s own think tank, it is constantly also engaging with other think tanks to advise the government on policies.”  

With events like the Raisina Dialogue and Carnegie India’s Global Technology Summit being addressed by ministers and policymakers in the government, and several Track 1.5 and Track 2 dialogues taking place through the likes of the ORF, the importance accorded to think tanks by the government is made evident. 

Besides, given the “large state capacity deficit in India”, there is tremendous room for ideas to come from outside, and that is what we are increasingly seeing happen, Pant added.

While much like policymaking itself, think tanks in India have largely been concentrated in the national capital, of late, they are coming up across the country.  

Take, for example, the Mumbai-based IDFC Institute, which is funded by the IDFC Foundation, and is a wholly-owned subsidiary of IDFC. It was set up in March 2011 as a not-for-profit company. 

With the aim of investigating “the political, economic and spatial dimensions of India’s ongoing transition from a low-income, state-led country to a prosperous market-based economy”, the institute runs the prestigious IDFC Dialogues, which are designed to be a series of “closed-door policy hackathons”. 

Arguably as significant as the Raisina Dialogue in the intellectual and policy sense, the IDFC Dialogues are attended by the likes of former UK prime minister Tony Blair, Professor Chang-Tai Hsieh, who teaches economics at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice Jasti Chelameswar (Retd) of the Supreme Court, Rathin Roy, former director, National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP), and Niti Aayog vice-chairman Rajiv Kumar, among others. 

Some of these think tanks are seeking to address the near-absence of public policy as an academic discipline in the country, which has created a shortage of employable researchers for this massively growing industry. 

The Bengaluru-based Takshashila Institution, for example, offers a Graduate Certificate in Public Policy (GCPP) alongside the regular research conducted by the think tank.

Pvt capital takes baby steps into the business of ideas

Think tanks in the early decades of Independence were largely government or quasi-government organisations in the sense that they were at least partially funded by the government. However, starting with the Reliance-backed ORF in 1990, Indian think tanks have seen a lot of industrialists and business houses throwing their weight behind them. 

Gateway House, for example, counts among its backers the Mahindra Group (which has provided office space for the think tank in Mumbai), former Infosys director Mohandas Pai, TVS Motors, and prominent investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, among others. The Institute for Human Settlements is backed by Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani. 

The CSEP (formerly, Brookings India) describes philanthropy as the “engine” that drives its work. It has on its board of directors Adi Godrej of the Godrej Group, Gaurav Dalmia of the Dalmia Group, Rahul Bajaj of the Bajaj Group, and Vikram Kirloskar of Kirloskar Systems, among others

The Takshashila Institution website lists among donors philanthropist Rohini Nilekani (“establishment donor”), besides the Shroff Family Charitable Trust, Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation, Rohini & Nandan Nilekani Philanthropies, and Infosys Foundation (“institutional donors”).

The Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), created under the aegis of the Kanyakumari-based Vivekananda Kendra, describes itself as “independently funded”. The annual audited accounts for 2018-19 qualify the bulk of its income as “donations”.

The PRS Legislative Research website says its work was initiated “with a grant from Ford Foundation, and subsequently by”. Currently, it adds, “the work of PRS is supported by a number of Indian institutions and individuals”.

These include Ajay Piramal of the Piramal Group, Avantha Foundation, India Value Fund Advisors, Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation, Mahindra & Mahindra, Meher Pudumjee of Thermax Ltd, Puneet Dalmia of Dalmia Bharat, Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, Rohini Nilekani, Shasun Pharmaceuticals, Tata Sons and Vikram Lal, among others.

“Somehow the thought-process in this country has always been that of lobbying. Thinking and research had no meaning here. We wanted to change that. Why should thinking and research be done only in rich countries? So, we made sure that India Inc. comes forward and begins investing in Indian think tanks rather than in the foreign ones,” said Manjeet Kripalani, executive director, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

Several experts argued that India Inc. ends up funding more research outside of the country because of the absence of a research-oriented culture here. 

“Millions of dollars from India flow into funding research at Harvard, Yale, etc. which are already very well endowed. But the same industries are less inclined to fund research in India,” said Rahul Verma, a fellow at CPR. 

The arrival of private funding, coupled with American think tanks like Carnegie setting up shop in India, has meant a boom in visibility, increase in research output, and a diversity in research areas — allowing research to not just be limited to areas the government is willing to fund. 

Good research is a public good, and in addition to it requiring resources, it depends on maintaining a firewall between the research organisation and those funding it, said Shamika Ravi. 

“That is why for research to flourish, it is important that government funding remains below a certain threshold of 7-10 per cent,” she added. “The same distance has to be maintained between research and private funders as well.”

The way ahead — a proliferation of specialised think tanks 

If there is a growing need of specialisation being felt in governance, there is a parallel need for specialisation growing within the think tank community in India. 

While the think tank space in India was earlier dominated by a few players dealing with economic affairs and foreign policy — such as the CPR, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), ICWA, and Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS), among others — there is a growing trend of specialised, domain-specific think tanks being established in the country. 

“At Carnegie, our focus is now on technology, data protection and security under the gambit of public policy. This is really the future and this is what will be the future of foreign policy in India,” said Rudra Chaudhuri, director, Carnegie India.

“As the think tank landscape grows deeper in this country, specialisation on specific issues will become key… There will be more vertical deepening of specialised subjects going forward,” Chaudhuri added.  

Similarly, there is a growing focus within the CSEP to be known within the strategic and foreign policy community through their work, according to Rakesh Mohan, president and distinguished fellow at the think tank.

Last year, Brookings DC withdrew from Brookings India, thereby giving birth to the CSEP with a reconstituted board. 

The CSEP’s objective now is to stand out from the rest, focusing on specialised issues rather than dealing with the plethora of subjects under India’s foreign policy umbrella. 

“We are now mostly focused on India’s neighbourhood and have begun more detailed work on China. Going forward, we want to put more focus on the larger Asian region because in the next 20 years the centre of gravity of the global economy is going to shift from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, coupled with growth in trade,” said Mohan. “This huge tectonic change in the global economy is taking place for the first time in 250 years. So, India has to engage more with Asia,” he added.

“Several think tanks have branched out of older, more generic think tanks.”

Verma, too, argued that there is a growing proclivity towards specialisation. “Several think tanks have branched out of older, more generic think tanks. For example, the PRS Legislative was earlier a part of CPR. Similarly, the Institute of China Studies was part of CSDS,” he said. “So, there are many cases where specific units become big enough to be established as domain-specific think tanks themselves.” 

The list of specialised think tanks actively informing public debate and influencing policy directly or indirectly across India is only growing. Consider the examples of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, or the Council on Energy, Environment and Water. 

Since the 1970s, most think tanks that came into existence in the US have also been specialised for a particular regional or functional area. India, with its growing influence, seems to be following suit, with both research output and the number of think tanks set to rise significantly over the next few decades before the ecosystem stabilises.

Less funds, lesser impact, more visibility — a paradox 

Most experts in the field argue that while private money has begun to come in, it is far from enough, making survival for think tanks a struggle.

“Indian philanthropic money still largely goes to social work or advocacy or activism groups, where there are more tangible outcomes than research,” said Nitin Pai, co-founder and director of the Takshashila Institution. 

“Then there is a function of which areas are businesses willing to fund. As a result, several small think tanks either end up shutting shop or making compromises in their research by taking up popular causes,” he added.  

Aiyar of CPR termed this phenomenon the “projecticisation of funding”. 

“There is little interest in funding for a broad commitment to creating knowledge systems and building institutions, and more in funding causes or projects, which inhibits long-term and embedded research,” she said. 

Moreover, given that Indian universities are rather ill-equipped to carry out cutting-edge research unlike their Western counterparts, because of the teaching load or just scarcity of resources available to the faculty, it makes think tanks the torch-bearers of research in India, and yet they find themselves sparsely funded, added Rahul Verma.  

For perspective, compare the funding received by ORF, India’s most well-endowed think tank in 2019-20, with that of the Brookings Institution, one of the US’ leading think tanks, in the same year. While ORF raised about Rs 30 crore in this period, Brookings was able to raise close to Rs 602 crore. 

Although think tanks and researchers have grown phenomenally in visibility — with op-ed pages, television debates and government engagement growing substantially — actual impact on policymaking remains limited, experts say. 

“I would argue that there is more visibility than influence on policymaking,” said Sanjay Kumar, co-director of Lokniti, a research programme at the CSDS. “In India, research findings are still not taken very seriously… But for sure, think tanks play a major part in shaping the public debate now. Even if indirect, that influence is substantial,” he added.

The government connection  

Yet, a number of think tanks like the ORF, India Foundation and the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), are known to have the government’s ear.

The India Foundation, for example, includes on its board of governors BJP Lok Sabha MP and former MoS for finance Jayant Sinha and BJP Rajya Sabha MP Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, besides Shaurya Doval, the son of National Security Adviser Ajit Doval. RSS leader Ram Madhav, former general secretary in the ruling BJP, is also on the board. 

Former railway minister Suresh Prabhu used to be a board member, but isn’t any longer.  

Such was known to be the grip of the think tank, which was founded in 2013, over the Modi government that senior officials would call it the NDA’s “quasi-NAC”, a reference to the UPA-era, Sonia Gandhi-headed National Advisory Council.

Similarly, the VIF, which was founded and formerly headed by Ajit Doval and had Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s former principal secretary Nripendra Misra as a member of its executive council, has as direct a link to the PMO as a think tank can possibly have. 

Some other prominent appointments from the VIF to the government include S. Gurumurthy, a director on the Reserve Bank of India board, Delhi Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal, V.K. Saraswat, who is now a member of the Niti Aayog and chancellor of JNU, K.G. Suresh, former director general of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), Arvind Gupta, who is a former deputy NSA, A. Surya Prakash, who served as chairperson of Prasar Bharati, and Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan.

Even the ORF has seen a lateral movement of experts from the think tank into the government. Ashok Malik, a senior journalist and a former fellow at the ORF, was first appointed as the president’s press secretary, and, subsequently, in 2019, as a policy adviser in the Ministry of External Affairs, with the official rank of additional secretary to the Government of India. 

Kanchan Gupta, a distinguished fellow at the ORF, was appointed senior adviser at the Information & Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry last month. 

“There has always been movement from the government to think tanks. That is extremely commonplace, so much so that most think tanks have on their board retired bureaucrats. But then, there is also a less widespread, but still significant, trend of people in think tanks being appointed to government positions,” said one of the people mentioned above, who didn’t want to be quoted in this regard. 

“NITI Aayog vice-chairman Rajiv Kumar is also a case in point. He was at the CPR before he was made head of NITI Aayog.”

Asked if the growing trend of appointments from think tanks to the government could lead to ideological polarisation in the growing industry, the person said, “It does seem like India will eventually go the US way, where think tanks are aligned to one party or the other, and every time there is a change of government, you see that several experts from the government move to think tanks, and those from think tanks aligned to the new government make their way into the government…

“As long as this does not compromise the quality of research being produced, I do not see it as a bad thing.”

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