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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.