Few days ago, the Indian economic daily, The Business Standard published an article on the recent arrival of several former officials of the right-wing think tank Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) into the Modi administration. As the article claims, six new officials have been anointed positions that have not been revealed. But given their national-security backgrounds (all but one), it appears that these former officials will be given high ranking positions within the national security and foreign policy apparatus. And this infusion already complements the heavyweight appointments that the think tank has given the incoming administration including NSA Ajit Doval, PS to PM (or Chief of Staff) Nripendra Mishra and PS to PM PK Mishra. These three individuals form the inner sanctum of the PM’s orbit and function as the gatekeepers to Modi and his principal advisors insofar as what the agenda is and how issues should be tackled once they emerge. They will, no doubt, wield enormous influence. These developments and additions present several interesting questions on the nature of the policymaking arena in New Delhi, the linkages between existing think tanks and policymakers and the larger, more abstract, relationship between ideas and policy. Has Modi’s arrival and his penchant to use and leverage experts and their expertise in the past herald a new era for Indian think tanks? How should Indian think tanks read this development? And what is one to make of the Indian think tank circuit as a whole?
Let us briefly consider each question with the final one first. By last count, India has about 300 think tanks with most centred in New Delhi with others located in metro cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore and Chennai. In terms of function, most think tanks have their own core agenda or issue (i.e. security, economics, energy, economics, etc.) and seek to advance public understanding on issues pertaining to their mandate. For instance, ICRIER (Indian Council on International Economic Relations) expends considerable energy on international economic issues, CSTEP (Centre for the Study of Science, Technology, and Policy) focuses heavily on energy related issues and technology part of that problem, ORF (Observer Research Foundation) owns the emerging international issues terrain and issues like south-south cooperation, global governance, etc; CEEW (Centre on Energy, Environment and Water) covers as eponymously suggested tackles the energy-environment-water issue as one; CSE (Centre on Science and Environment) has been a force to reckon with on environmental and various public health issues.
Most think tanks are bound by their issue focus. One exception is CPR (Centre for Policy Research) that has a rather broad mandate and covers several critical areas including national security, energy and climate change, governance and regulation, etc. Ideologically, it is not very easy to define them. Though some, like VIF, have clearly tilted toward the right and hold more hawkish positions on issues they cover, other think tanks are more focused on generating applicable research and knowledge to describe and eventually address public policy problems. Some have close ties to government and government entities and are intermittently tasked to hold workshops, conferences on various salient issues that are attended by relevant ministry officials. Some think tanks are occasionally summoned to provide summary papers or memorandums on particular problems that the government confronts. Although linkages are present, the policy terrain is not well networked and institutionalised. Most think tanks rely on external and foreign sources for funding; the government chips in with support for overheads when necessary. As such, the demand for greater research and advice is rather weak and the supply given low demand is not poised to fill the void due to institutional and infrastructural deficits that disconcertingly fester. Thought these features describe most of the think tanks, not all. Some like the ORF are well funded and managed with deep links to think tanks in Europe and North America. On the whole, the think tank landscape is rather fallow.
Given this condition, the links between think tanks and policymakers need to be nurtured. And this brings us back to Modi and the BJP government and whether they can infuse some energy into the policy terrain, especially between policymakers and think tanks that are situated outside government. The public policy literature suggests that the entry of a new government functions as a ‘critical juncture’ where new ideas get jostled within policy corridors to address existing problems. As such, think tanks should find a new lifeline given circumstances. And this is further emboldened by Modi’s penchant to rely on knowledge and experts to address public problems as evidenced by his premiership in Gujarat (Although his premiership has also provided evidence of centralisation of power). The entry of several prominent conservative and nationalist-leaning think tankers into government, however, does suggest that this government will aim to keep a tight leash on major policy issues, especially on sensitive matters related to national security and geopolitical issues. But their economic agenda that is so far centred on issues like energy, infrastructure, agriculture, urbanisation and public health offers tremendous scope insofar as tapping external advice is concerned. And based on what has been said by Modi himself during the campaign and after he assumed office and past experience, there is also hope that more think tank counsel will be sought when necessary. But the question of whether think tanks can meet and fulfil that demand remains to be seen.