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Think tanks help the nation's intellectual churn

August 19, 2014 15:17 IST

I still believe that it is a good thing that think tanks are mushrooming in Delhi. They provide a platform for discussion, even if they shed more heat than light. With Parliament almost incapable of serious debate, informed discussion and civilised discourse, where does this nation get its intellectual churn, asks Mohan Guruswamy.

The term ‘think tank’ owes its origins to John F Kennedy who collected a group of top intellectuals in his White House, people like McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara, John Galbraith, Arthur Schlesinger and Ted Sorenson among others to give him counsel on issues from time to time. He described it as having them on tap and on the turn of the spigot good advice was on hand. He called them his ‘think tank’. Kennedy described the first dinner meeting as the White House never had so much brilliance and brain power in its dining room since Thomas Jefferson had dinner alone in it.

The US always had a tradition of academics and policy wonks flitting in and out of government for short periods. Most of these academics came from top institutions like Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford. But very few academics would trade in a tenured professorship for a White House or top administration job. Universities would give leave of absence of up to two years, after which the job was lost. Academics in America still prize a tenured professorship to even a cabinet post. In fact they often see a job in government as a kind of public service.

When I entered the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard as a Edward S Mason Fellow in 1981, the Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling introduced Edward Mason to my class by saying: "When I joined the Harvard faculty, Ed Mason was already a big man. We used to hear that he would one day become Secretary of State. But Ed Mason went one better. He became Dean of the School of Government!"

This only underscores how much a top job in academia is prized in the US. Kennedy himself wanted to join the Harvard faculty after completing his second term and hence his family endowed the Institute of Politics and the Presidential Library to be a part of Harvard. That didn't happen, but the School of Government was renamed the Kennedy School.

In India think tanks, are not really places where thinking is done. They are mostly talk shops where retired bureaucrats and generals shoot the breeze. Discussions are usually full of the "I think and I believe" stuff New Delhi is already so full off. Few do research. Even fewer can write. Frankly I am surprised that three of our think tanks actually figure in the top 100.

Most of India's think tanks are in Delhi, not surprisingly, as the NCR has the most number of retired officials -- still anxious to serve the nation. And this service often pays off with jobs in government on a rehire basis. The top think tanks in Delhi are government supported and funded. The security think tanks like CLAWS, CAPS, NMF and IDSA are adjuncts of the armed services and the ministry of defence. Most of the time they function as lobbyists for the service headquarters that funds them. The government appoints the head of IDSA.

The USI is not a think tank, but from time to time fancies itself as one. The economics area think tanks such as ICRIER, ICAER etc derive their funding largely from the government and multilateral bodies. The prestigious Centre for Policy Research located in New Delhi’s posh Chankayapuri, was originally funded by the Ford Foundation but now largely self supports itself doing mostly government projects.

In recent years we have seen the emergence of privately funded think tanks. The ORF initially funded by Reliance Industries Limited, has in recent years shown a degree of entrepreneurism that Dhirubhai Ambani would have approved off. It now raises a good part of its funding from the government and foreign institutions.

Late last year, The Brookings Institution, the USA's biggest and most prominent think tank made its entry into India, with Brookings India, lavishly and slavishly funded by a galaxy of Indian industrialists.

The Vivekananda International Foundation is a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh funded think tank and the stable currently in favour. It too has a very small body of seriously cerebral work to show. It too was mostly a talk shop and a pamphleteer for the Hindutva cause. I see nothing wrong in the RSS has a think tank of its own. Some think suggests that all is not blind belief. One day I hope the VIF puts out a study that nuclear weapons and even aircraft are of relatively recent origin and not technologies forgotten with the Vedic period.

Many think tanks have of late found a new line of activity and sustenance as event mangers for various ministries. The MEA is very short staffed and is also seriously lacking in intellect. So it has to farm out workshops and lecture events for visiting delegations and dignitaries to the think tanks. Many foreign arms companies also sponsor seminars, which subtly push a certain line or weapons system. Some years ago the CAPS organised a lavishly mounted ‘seminar’ at the Oberoi Hotel mostly focused on the MMRCA and other pending modernisation projects. Companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon sponsored the event. No guessing on why they were interested.

I am very concerned by the emergence of Brookings so close to the policy making centre in India. Already we have the CII and FICCI, which serve the interests of its member companies, Indian and foreign, cloaking their lobbying as common good policy suggestions. The CII in the Manmohan Singh/Montek Singh Ahluwalia heydays played a major role in shaping India-US relations. It actively lobbied for a closer engagement with the US.

In fact the head honcho of the CII those days, a man called Tarun Das, made it his life mission to make India a US ally. Post CII, and a teary farewell on TV after being outed in the Radia Tapes, he now runs something called the Aspen Institute, devoted to closer Indo-US ties. Aspen now being the counterpart of the now defunct Indo-Soviet Council on Understanding where people like Inder Gujral and H N Bahuguna cut their teeth.

Having said this, I still believe that it is a good thing that think tanks are mushrooming in Delhi. They provide a platform for discussion, even if they shed more heat than light. With Parliament almost incapable of serious debate, informed discussion and civilised discourse, where does this nation get its intellectual churn? Thank God for think tanks. As that famous man said: "Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend."

Mohan Guruswamy