November 15, 2011

Bases For Heads

Carnegie Endowment officials at South Block after meeting S.M. Krishna
India’s global rise sparks strategic interest in US, western think-tanks. Most want a foothold.

The Thinking Caps

  • Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
    Over 100 years old, this think-tank works on policies to strengthen America's engagement with the outside world. Has centres in several world capitals.
  • Brookings Institution
    Based in Washington and famous worldwide, it works on policies related to strategic issues
  • Rand Corporation
    Perceived to be close to the US defence establishment, it has branched off into areas like health. Looking for an Indian partner for a presence here.
  • Centre for International and Strategic Studies
    It has been working closely with the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER). Recently set up the Wadhwani Chair to forge closer ties between India and the US on economic and security issues.
  • Heritage Foundation
    A conservative think-tank, it has been engaged for some years now with Indian think-tanks on specific projects. Now wants to increase its focus on India and India-related issues.


On Tuesday, November 8, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh received an unusual delegation comprising senior members of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a renowned American think-tank. Led by its chairman, Richard Giordano, and accompanied by Sunil Bharti Mittal, CEO of the Bharti Group and a trustee of the Carnegie Endowment, the visitors from Washington expressed their wish to house their organisation’s South Asian operation in Delhi.

You could say the Carnegie’s interest in India is understandable, boasting as it does a few centres around the world. But what ought to surprise you is that a slew of top American think-tanks—the Brookings Institution, the Rand Corporation, the Centre for International and Strategic Studies, the Heritage Foundation and many others—has been regularly sending delegations to India over the past few years. Their mission: probe the possibilities of initiating operations in India or deepening ties with Indian think-tanks for a better understanding of developments in India and the region. Their motivation: to influence, even shape, policies for strengthening Indo-US relations.

“Given India’s rise, we’re very keen to expand our existing work here; we are exploring setting up an India policy initiative.”Strobe Talbott, President, Brookings Institution
“This is an exploratory visit,” Ashley Tellis, a senior member of the Carnegie delegation, tells Outlook. He says they are seriously exploring the possibility of setting up shop in India, and examining the organisational “model” best suited for India as their emphasis is to make the Indian offshoot of Carnegie an independent entity that would undertake locally relevant operations with local staff and management. Similarly, Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution, says, “Given India’s rise to global prominence, we are keen to expand our existing work on India. We are exploring the establishment of an India policy initiative, which could be based both in Washington DC and New Delhi.”

Talbott says the research of the prospective India chapter of the Brookings would have the characteristics defining its work—independent, non-partisan and academically rigorous. A tad conscious of being misinterpreted, Talbott is quick to add, “This expanded portfolio would complement, rather than substitute, the range of impressive think-tanks which already exist in India and with whom our scholars have a robust working relationship.”

Manmohan Singh with (left) Carnegie Endowment chairman Richard Giordano and Sunil Mittal

Perhaps Talbott is circumspect because of the history of think-tanks, particularly those of foreign origin, in India. Their significance wasn’t lost on Indian leaders—in the early 1940s Jawaharlal Nehru, Tej Bahadur Sapru and others established the Indian Council for World Affairs (ICWA), which had as its model UK’s Chatham House. It was at the ICWA building, now known as Sapru House, that India hosted Asian leaders months before it became independent.

“We are seriously exploring the possibility of setting up shop, and examining the organisational model best suited.”Ashley Tellis, Member, Carnegie Endowment
But hardboiled strategic affairs issues didn’t engage the Indian thinkers, who realised this glaring lacuna during their analyses of the humiliating defeat against China. This led to the establishment of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in 1965. A few years later, though, a paranoid Indira Gandhi government took to packing off foreign organisations, like the Ford Foundation and The Asia Foundation, which focused mainly on issues of economic development. The government believed they were nothing more than all-seeing tentacles of the notorious CIA.

Some of these agencies are now back in India. For instance, The Asia Foundation (TAF) has been working in tandem with the Indian government to send young and middle-level Indian Foreign Service officials for a crash course to the US, to help train Afghan students for building a civil society. TAF’s country representative in New Delhi, Nick Langton, tells Outlook, “World circumstances have changed dramatically since then, as have India’s relations with the United States.” He, however, insists that TAF is not a think-tank but an “international development organisation”, and its interest is not to influence policy but to build local capacities through NGOs. Outfits such as TAF abound, and many have their parent organisations based in western countries other than America.

“The millions that India’s wealthy donate to foreign bodies can help many of our think-tanks which are low on funds.”Neelam Deo, Gateway House
The game-changer in the realm of think-tanks was Pokhran II. With India going nuclear in May 1998, there was a growing eagerness in the US and other western countries to plumb the thinking in strategic circles here. In addition, India’s economic growth and its emergence as an investment destination stoked further interest. A shift from foreign agencies focusing on development to those pondering over arcane matters of economic and strategic affairs was only natural. A number of Indian think-tanks surfaced, such as the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, the South Asia Analysis Group, the Gateway House and The Takshashila Institution. Those of earlier vintage—the Centre for Policy Research and the Observer Research Foundation—adopted a more robust strategic orientation in their research.

India has now moved to a stage where famous foreign think-tanks, particularly those from America, are making a beeline for India (see infobox). This was a consequence of India reaching out to America and them trying to hammer out a nuclear deal. Realising that to muster support for Indo-US relations in Washington, it was imperative to engage the think-tanks, then Indian ambassador Ronen Sen began hosting luminaries whose business was to research and ponder over foreign policies. One unintended consequence was to kindle their interest in India’s strategic thinking; the other was a dramatic improvement in Indo-US relations. In the structure prevailing in Washington, people from think-tanks often become members of the government, and at the completion of their tenure, return to their organisations. No wonder, think-tanks in the US are held in high esteem.

This doesn’t happen in India, says Sanjaya Baru, who was media advisor to the prime minister in UPA-I, because foreign policy is closely guarded by career diplomats. He tells Outlook, “It’s very difficult for the government to take any inputs from anywhere else unless you are a member of the foreign policy trade union—the ministry of external affairs.” Yet Baru, who’s now with the London-based think-tank Institute for International Strategic Studies, admits that the government is already demonstrating flexibility on this score, something that was evident from a recent seminar on ‘Asian Security’ held by the MEA’s Public Diplomacy division. In the two-day seminar, a select group of academics interacted with officials on foreign policy.

“It’s very difficult for the Centre to take any inputs unless one is a member of the ministry of external affairs.”Sanjaya Baru, Former Media Advisor To PM
Baru says the interest of foreign think-tanks in India are of three types. First, there are those who want institutional engagement with established Indian think-tanks. Two, there are some who directly fund individuals on specific projects or operate through means such as Washington’s ciss and New Delhi-based ICRIER establishing the Wadhwani Chair from January this year. Three, there are a handful who want to set up their own operations in India.

They want to set up shop here, say some, because they believe they can attract funds from India’s growing league of millionaires and billionaires. So why don’t Indian think-tanks try to lure corporate funding? Former diplomat Neelam Deo, who is associated with the Mumbai-based Gateway House, says Indian corporate giants are more keen to fund international institutions than those in India. She says, “The millions of dollars that many of them donate to Harvard and other institutions at best get them their name written on a wall, but that amount of money can transform many of our institutions which suffer from lack of funds.” Counters Sunil Bharti Mittal, “We do support activities of Indian think-tanks and institutions from time to time.” As proof, he says his organisation Bharti plans to fund India’s first dedicated public policy institute in Mohali, likely to come up next year.

The presence of the big American think-tanks can lift standards here, spurring Indian bodies to greater rigour.
Related to the debate over India’s wealthiest not funding Indian think-tanks is the question: what will be the impact of big US think-tanks setting up shop here? For one, the quality of their research and analysis will lift standards in India, as their competitive presence would spur Indian think-tanks to greater rigour. It’s also likely to usher in a more informed and balanced debate than what we have in the public domain. And 24/7 TV channels, for sure, will have a wider array of experts to chose from as their guests.

N.S. Sisodia, director-general of Delhi’s IDSA, points to the flip side of the impact of think-tanks: “They could also lure away and denude India’s top think-tanks of their best experts.” Also, as a confident India reaches out to contend with the best brains of the US and elsewhere, it too, will have to prepare itself to the fact that ‘outsiders’ will try to influence policies in key areas. Indeed, the Indian foreign policy establishment will have to put its best foot forward to hold its own against them.

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