With a concerted effort, think tanks in Bharat have the potential and the ability to make it to the top rankings worldwide, but a lot needs to change in how such institutes are funded and governed
A large number of think tanks have mushroomed across the world, and Bharat too is no exception. As per the report, ‘Global Go To Think Tank Index 2015’, prepared by the University of Pennsylvania, Bharat, with 280 think tanks, ranks fourth on the list of nations with the most number of think tanks. Predictably, the US, with 1,835 think tanks leads the pack in terms of numbers of think tanks. Unlike Bharat however, the think tanks from the United States also top the list in terms of qualitative output. Bharateeya think tanks have yet to break the glass ceiling and emerge amongst the top fifty in world rankings.
The report of the University of Pennsylvania is the result of an international survey of over 7,500 scholars, public and private donors, policy makers, and journalists who helped rank more than 6,000 think tanks using a set of 28 criteria developed by the Think Tanks and Civil Society Programme (TTCSP) of the University. The few Bharateeya think tanks which found mention were Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA), The United Services Institute (USI), The Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), Centre for Civil Society (CCS), Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICREAR), Gateway House, Observer Research Foundation and a few others.
Much can be said about the modus operandi adopted by the University of Pennsylvania in carrying out such a massive exercise. Undoubtedly, the process suffers from some infirmities, but overall, it would be hard to fault the results which have been published. Bharateeya think tanks, to a large extent lack serious original research, their publications are rarely based on field visits and few influence policy decisions of the government. Yet theyhave been effective in shaping public opinion, and to a limited extent have added to the quality of the discourse on matters related to defence, foreign policy and economic affairs.
Why is it that Bharat cannot produce a single think tank of international stature, which even small countries like Singapore have been able to do? A part of the answer lies in the fact that government officials in Bharat have an all knowing attitude and refuse to consult think tanks. The reasons given are that the work produced by think tanks is of a pedestrian nature and has little utility as far as policy inputs are concerned. The think tanks, on the other hand, do not focus on policy matters precisely because the government is unresponsive to inputs which are given to them. This negative spiral needs to be broken, if Bharateeya think tanks are to achieve some measure of standing among their counterparts across the world. As of now, little original work comes out of Bharateeya think tanks. What is produced is more often than not research papers using data from foreign sources, which inevitably carries the bias of the host country. Most such reports are accordingly biased towards western concepts.
A major cause of poor quality research lies in the fact that government sponsored think tanks lack autonomy of functioning and private think tanks follow the line of those that sponsor them. Independence of thought is thus curtailed, and focused towards advocacy of certain interests, be they of the government and their institutions or of the private sector.
Another major concern remains funding. This impacts on the quality of human potential which the think tanks can hire. Low wages ensure that researchers of calibre do not opt to work in Bharateeya think tanks. If they do so, they side step very quickly to other more paying jobs in the public or private sector. Thus, there is a lack of continuity, with think tanks having to do make do with the talent that is available, most of whom resorting to cut and paste jobs, consequently producing mediocre output. Lack of funding impinges on quality research as original research is time intensive and costly. This further buttresses the argument of government officials, who remain confined to their respective silos, believing that they know best. As their work is not used, the think tanks continue in their old ways, perpetuating the negative cycle mentioned earlier.
The last aspect pertains to leadership. Think tanks must be headed by people who have a flair for such work. Experience in the literary world and analytical ability is important while selecting people to head such institutions, but neither age nor rank has much relevance. This aspect too, remains the achilles heel for most Bhrateeya think tanks.
The above notwithstanding, the think tank concept is a desirable one, and must be strengthened. The emphasis must shift to quality inputs, with closer cooperation between the government and the think tanks as is the norm in the US. With a concerted effort, Bharat think tanks have the potential and the ability to make it to the top rankings worldwide, but a lot needs to change in how such institutes are funded and governed.
Maj Gen Dhruv C Katoch (The writer is the former Director of CLAWS and is presently the Editor of SALUTE magazine)