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Can Indian Think Tanks Play A Role In Global Security? by Dr Rajiv Nayan

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Author: Dr Rajiv Nayan
Do Indian think tanks have capacity to contribute to the decision-making for national and global security? Will the Indian government allow think tanks to play a constructive role in the decision-making process? Despite operating against heavy odds Indian think tanks and professional researchers have been contributing to the policy making process. The Indian bureaucracy has not been completely indifferent to new ideas.

The Indian Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi, in one of his initial addresses, underlined the need for the input of intellectual think tanks to enrich policy making. This was on June 8, 2014 within a fortnight of taking the oath as the Prime Minister of the country. The occasion was the release of a study report of a foreign think tank at the Prime Minister’s residence in New Delhi. The focus of the report was not national or global security, yet some of the chapters / sections of the report addressed it. The report had all the chapters written by Indians or people of Indian origin.

Paradoxically, the report created an impression that an Indian think tank is not able to generate such a report and the Indian policy making process receives little input from the think tank community. Is it true? Is it true for Indian policy making in national security and global security? The impression is partly true. In fields such as finance and Indian history, Indian think tanks and research institutes are performing well. But in many policy issue areas, including security and strategy, think tanks have to realise their potential. This applies quite well to influencing or contributing policy for global or international security.


What Is A Think Tank?

Like many other concepts, defining a think tank has been a problem. However, the leading institutions and programmes working on the subject have tried to define and develop an understanding about think tank from time to time. As a result, there are several definitions and typologies of think tanks based on different criteria. Yet, the policy making community has worked out some working definition. For example, the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Programme (TTCSP) of the University of Pennsylvania that publishes the annual Global Go To Think Tanks Report, considers think tanks “public policy research, analysis and engagement institutions that generate policy-oriented research, analysis and advice on domestic and international issues that enable policy makers and the public to make informed decisions about public policy issues.”

The ambiguity regarding the definition of think tank has, in turn, complicated the task of tracing the origin of the think tank in the world. Some studies trace its origin to the ancient Greek world but some to the Society for the Abolition of The African Slave Trade established by an Englishman Thomas Clarkson in 1782. Notwithstanding the historical enthusiasm or possibly over-enthusiasm of some writers, the idea of think tank became a phenomenon of late 19th and 20th centuries. Basically, it originated in advanced industrial societies of Western Europe and the United States. More so, in the 20th century, it became a predominant phenomenon of the US policy making process.

Ambiguity Remains

The TTCSP informs that currently, there are 6,826 think tanks in the world and 268 in India. There is all possibility that the problem of definition and other methodological issues may have left several organisations out. Otherwise, the number could be higher than what is projected by the TTCSP. These think tanks are active in a large number of issue areas doing multiple tasks. Recently, the TTCSP has begun a practice of categorising think tanks by areas of research.

So, it has a category of Defence and National Security Think Tanks. However, any discussion on national and international / global security may involve the think tanks placed in the categories such as Foreign Policy and International Affairs Think Tanks and Transparency and Good Governance Think Tanks. In fact, some of the think tanks which are working on global security issues are placed in the categories other than Defence and National Security. Similarly, the think tanks placed in the Defence and National Security also work on international relations and foreign policy issues.

Does India not have enough think tanks to work on global security or even on national security? For several decades, India has think tanks which are working on security issues. However, the problem of understanding and definition of think tank may be witnessed in the Indian context as well. Some members of the strategic community refuse to accept some organisations like the United Service Institute (USI) of India as a think tank, but almost all writings on think tanks recognise that London-based Royal United Services for Defence and Security Studies established in 1831 is a classical think tank. The USI of India is usually considered to be its Indian counterpart.

Indian sceptics maintain that the USI is tasked to promote ‘strategic culture’ through events, not by conducting research. Another section maintains that the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, Centre for Air Power Studies and National Maritime Foundation are hardly think tanks, but merely lobbyists for their services. This kind of assertion is not based on any sound logic and facts. In reality, all are engaged in what any classical think tank is supposed to do. There is no principled or theoretical fault with their operation. The real problem lies somewhere else.

TTCSP’s report places three Indian think tanks in the top 65 world’s Defence and National Security Think Tanks. The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) is ranked 38th, Centre for Land Warfare Studies 48th and Observer Research Foundation 52nd. As discussed, a number of think tanks placed in other categories are also working on security related issues. In fact, even in India, think tanks are proliferating and the TTCSP may not have recorded all the think tanks, especially new and small. So, should we conclude that the observation of the Indian Prime Minister that the policy making process is not getting enough input is wrong?

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