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Do The Indian Defence Think Tanks Matter? by Maj Gen Mrinal Suman

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Author :Maj Gen Dr Mrinal Suman (Retd)
The annual 2013 Global Go To Think Tank Index was released by the University of Pennsylvania in January 2014. With the aim of identifying and recognising centres of excellence in all the major areas of public policy research, the Index ranks think tanks the world over in a variety of categories.

According to the Index, as per the data collected in August 2013, there were 6826 think tanks in the whole world. Whereas North America had 1984 think tanks, Europe and Asia had 1818 and 1201 respectively. In sheer numbers, India was fourth (after the US, China and the UK) with 268 think tanks. However, in the list of the world’s top think tanks, India performed poorly with only one think tank appearing in the top 100. The Centre for Civil Society occupied the 50th position. The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) was ranked 102nd.

As regards the list of top defence national security think tanks, IDSA appears at 38th position while the Centre for Land Warfare Studies occupies 48th position and the Observer Research Foundation is placed at 52nd rank. Very interestingly, no Indian think tank makes it to the lists of ‘Best Managed Think Tanks’ and ‘Think Tanks with the Most Significant Impact on Public Policy’.


Nature And Role Of Think Tanks

The primary role of a think tank is to help bridge the gap between knowledge and policy by studying future uncertainties and developing well-articulated policy options through research and analysis of multi-dimensional variables. In addition, high quality research work should help mould opinions and policies in the larger interests of the public and the nation. Although it is difficult to define think tanks in precise terms, they are all structured as permanent bodies and funded by government or private supporters.

The RAND (name derived from research and development) Corporation is recognised to be the first modern think tank. It was founded in 1946 and its objective was ‘to provide information to military decision-makers that would sharpen their judgment and provide the basis for more informed choices’. Through research and analysis on issues relating to the national security and public welfare of the United States, it has been helping improve the quality of decision-making. It employs highly sophisticated in-house developed analytical tools to create knowledge, generate options and suggest best solutions.

After realising the usefulness of RAND, a number of think tanks came into being. Subsequently, think tanks were established to deal with other fields as well. The current trend is towards having specialised think tanks that focus on a particular discipline or policy issue. Interestingly, more than 50 per cent of the think tanks in the US are affiliated to the universities.

In order to generate credible options with positive and negative aspects duly spelt out, research and analysis have to be objective and purposeful. Solutions suggested must be within the realms of practicality. Wishful and implausible propositions mean little. As research cannot be carried out in a vacuum, it should be confined to important issues concerning the government and the public. It must be relevant and topical.

Factors that affect the standard of a think tank include quality and commitment of its leadership; focus on the stated objective; financial soundness; ability to attract and retain top experts, analysts and scholars for research; and retaining independence of its deliberations.

A demonstrated commitment to producing independent and non-partisan research-cum-analysis work is the hallmark of excellence of a think tank. A high-quality think tank must have adequate resources, utilise them optimally and produce high-grade work that has an impact. However, to retain credibility, it should not become a mouthpiece of the funding entities.

India’s Defence Think Tanks

India got its first true think tank of the genre with the establishment of IDSA in New Delhi in 1965. The Institute is funded by the Ministry of Defence. Of late, a number of ‘think tanks’ have come into being, both with government and private funding.
Think tanks that are funded by the government occupy prime locations and possess enormous infrastructural resources. Although they claim to be autonomous, the bureaucracy ensures that its writ runs. Resultantly, these think tanks produce placid, non-contentious and routine research studies that are bereft of any innovative thoughts. Not a word is said against the government policies. That is considered to be an act of unpardonable sacrilege.

All researchers and experts are unambiguously advised that their jobs depend on their ‘continued good behaviour’. They have to stay within the defined limits. Any person trying to chart an independent course is quickly sacked and replaced by a favourite loyalist. A statement often heard in such organisations is, “When you are occupying a cozy seat, why stand up (for any cause) and risk losing it?”

Bureaucratic Control

Sadly, most of the think tanks have got reduced to the level of fiefdoms of a coterie of self-promoting and self-proclaimed entities. There is no freedom of thought or expression. For example, no expert on the payrolls of the Centre for Air Power Studies can advocate the institution of Chief of Defence Staff. Researchers are expected to toe the official line.

Most of the think tanks are controlled by well-entrenched ‘survivors’. Regimes come and regimes go but they go on forever. Their survival depends not on any meritorious work but on remaining on the right side of the people who matter. They never criticise their patrons in the fear of losing benefaction. Almost all think tanks have become parking place for the favourites. Competence or suitability does not matter.

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