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Strategic Defence

India Needs Independent Defence Think Tanks
By Major General Mrinal Suman, May 2011 [[email protected]]

Chapter :

During his address at the 42nd  Foundation Day function of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA),  the Vice President of India, Mr M Hamid Ansari stressed the need for structured  thinking. “Governments busy with the concerns of the moment sometimes do not  have the time and the energy to devote themselves in sufficient measure to  matters in the domain of the possible, the probable and even the improbable,”  he added. He exhorted the strategic community to respond to security  imperatives and energise the policy impulse.

Think tanks provide an ideal vehicle to  the strategic community to study future uncertainties and develop  well-articulated policy options through research and analysis of  multi-dimensional variables. They help bridge the gap between insightful  knowledge and well-informed policy making. Although India has 122 think tanks, most  of them are of indifferent standard. According to a global survey carried out by the  Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute in 2007, India was fifth  in the list of countries having the maximum number of think tanks. Quite  expectedly, the United States headed the list with 1776.
The origin  of the term think tank can be traced back to the Second World War and was  initially applied to war planning deliberations. Some used the phrase brain  boxes as well. However, by the end of 1950s the term think tank had come to be  accepted universally and gradually transcended to other disciplines as well. RAND  Corporation, founded in 1946 to offer advice to the US military is considered  by many to be the first modern think tank. It developed systems analysis, whose  objective was "to provide information to military decision-makers that  would sharpen their judgment and provide the basis for more informed  choices."

As seen  above, the role of think tanks was limited to military advice initially. As all  militaries have to contend with indefinite and unpredictable environment, think  tanks help immensely by developing tools for decision making. Their contribution  to  game theory, dynamic programming, mathematical modelling, simulation, and  network theory and cost analysis is well documented. During the last thirty years, with expansion of their field of activity,  their number has increased exponentially. They number over 5000 today.

In the United  States, all major issues are researched, analysed and debated in public  domain by different think tanks to generate multiple interpretations,  viewpoints and alternative courses of action. Both privately funded and the Government  owned think tanks contribute by active participation. The Government encourages  such open discussions and takes due cognizance of opinions expressed while  formulating policies. Britain boasts of some of the finest think tanks  which influence Government policies.Royal United  Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), founded in 1831 to  study naval and military science has widened its area of study to include  insurgency, terrorism and other unconventional threats. Even the People's Republic of China has realised  the importance of think tanks. Although owned by the Government, they are  granted sufficient autonomy to debate issues freely.Maximum proliferation of think tanks in the  recent times has been seen in the erstwhile Soviet Union countries.

Although it is difficult to define think tanks in precise terms, they are all structured  as permanent bodies, funded by government or private supporters. Some of the essential attributes that a conventional think  tank should possess are as follows:-

Independent and Non-partisan Approach
  Think tanks  should subscribe to no ideology and produce honest and objective research  papers. They should not permit themselves to be used as propaganda  tool or as lobbying groups of funding entities. Some think tanks are aligned  with different ideologies or view points and tend to support them through their  studies. They are treated as mouth-pieces of interested parties. There are many  advocacy organizations (under the façade of think tanks) that are ready to  produce tailor-made studies for a cost. Such institutions lose their  credibility and contribute little to objective debate of issues involved.

Therefore,  it is essential that outside funding should be such that it does not impinge  on the independence and integrity of research institutions. The US based  Centre for Defense Information (CDI) is totally financed by voluntary  tax-deductible contributions from individuals and grants from foundations. It  declines funds from the military and the military contractors to remain as “the  nation’s foremost independent military research organization.” Similarly, in  order to maintain its independence, the Cato Institute accepts no government  funding. It receives approximately 75 percent of its funding from individuals,  with lesser amounts coming from foundations, corporations and the sale of  publications.

Quality of Research Staff
Quality of  research work totally depends on the competence of research staff involved. Any  think tank that becomes a parking area for favourites degenerates into a  coterie club where merit ceases to be of any relevance. Such think tanks exist  only to provide vocation to some influential retired functionaries and produce  little of value. Self preservation becomes the prime concern of the research  scholars. RAND owes its preeminence to the high quality of its researchers which include many Nobel Laureates. Similarly,  high caliber of scholars has made Brookings an influential and most-quoted  think tank. RUSI is known for consistent high quality research work produced by  world-class experts associated with it.

Selection of Issues for Research
A think tank should carry out research and analysis of important issues  concerning the governments and the public. Research cannot be  carried out in a vacuum. It has to be relevant and topical. It must produce  results which are of use to mould public opinion and help the functionaries in opting  for the most suitable course of action. Selection of issues depends on field of  activity and national interests. For a US based think tank every occurrence in  any corner of the world is important but for an Indian think tank it is pointless  to focus on issues that India does not relate to.

Unfortunately,  many think tanks produce research work which is of little relevance and remains  purely academic in value with no practical application. Such efforts are  wasteful.

Objective Research and Purposeful Analysis
  Research must aim at
discovering, interpreting and revising understanding of issues under study. It must be carried out in a structured  format – spelling out of the subject matter in precise terms, formulation of  preliminary hypothesis, defining operational imperatives, collection and  analysis of data, review of preliminary hypothesis and generation of research  results. Research can be exploratory (identifies new problems), constructive  (finds new solutions for a known problem) or empirical (solution is tested against  empirical evidence). The aim of analysis should be to carry out an  in-depth study of an issue by careful examination of its structure and  operation. Different inferences with supporting evidence are drawn to arrive at the best course of action from among various  alternatives. In  order to generate credible options with their positive and negative aspects, research  has to be objective and analysis purposeful.

Therefore, think tanks must generate solutions which are  within the realms of practicality. Wishful and implausible propositions mean  little.

India and Think Tanks
  Degree of  effective contribution of think tanks in a country depends on two factors -  first, degree of freedom granted to them to analyse and debate issues of  national importance in a frank and forthright manner and, secondly,  government’s receptivity to different viewpoints. Therefore, think tanks  generally perform better in democracies rather than dictatorial  regimes where they get forced to articulate government’s stance  and policies. Moreover, the quality of research work varies from mediocre to  sub-standard.

In the case of India, think tanks have  failed to contribute significantly for the following reasons:-
  • India  lacks a tradition of long term strategic thinking and policy planning. Indian  psyche is more wrapped up in philosophy rather than history. History is never  studied seriously to draw lessons for preparing for the future. Furthermore,  petty politicking and day to day routine functioning keeps the Government so  busy that it has little time or inclination to develop long term perspective  and objectives.
  • As  the Government’s functioning is highly secretive, very little authentic  information is available in public domain, handicapping realistic research  work. Individualistic and compartmentalised mindset of functionaries also inhibits  sharing of information and wider consultations. They are highly protective of  their turf and consider collective decision making as an encroachment of their  domain.
  • Moreover, Indian functionaries resent criticism and  difference of opinion. Policy makers are averse to accept external advice as  they consider themselves to be fully equipped to take decisions in national  interest. They do not take kindly to dissention and expect academicians to toe  the official line. All Government-funded institutions get coerced into  producing placid and non-contentious research studies. The value of such  studies, therefore, becomes suspect.

Of late, a number of ‘think tanks’ have come into being, both with  Government and private funding. Unfortunately, most of them have got reduced to  the level of fiefdoms of a coterie of self-promoting and self-proclaimed  experts. Despite the fact that the Government funded think tanks possess  enormous infrastructural resources, they have failed to deliver. In the Indian  scheme of things, the term autonomy does not exist. If the Government funds an  organisation it ensures that its writ runs. Even the jobs of organisation’s experts  depend on their ‘continued good behaviour’. Any person trying to chart an  independent course is quickly sacked and replaced by a favourite loyalist. Therefore,  most experts never oppose any Government policy and confine their so-called  research to perfunctory and irrelevant issues.   A statement often heard in such organisations is, “When you are  occupying a cushioned seat, why stand up (for any cause) and risk losing it?”

A well known think  tank is often referred to as ‘cut and paste’ club, as all its members excel in  producing research papers by compiling excerpts from published material. Their only  motivation for taking up research is to get a peaceful tenure in Delhi.  Research papers are produced on every subject under the sun, even if of remote  interest to India. The quality of research papers is judged by the number of  references and notes provided at the end. Every statement is required to be  authenticated by referring to a published source, howsoever well known it may  be. There are many papers in which the researcher does not contribute even a  paragraph of his own.

Another think  tank is so short of quality work that it fills its journal by reproducing texts  of speeches made by visiting speakers and reports of study tours. One of the  newer think tanks has a single point agenda – oppose appointment of Chief of Defence  Staff (CDS). Every article and statement emanating from it ends up stressing  and re-stressing the ills of CDS system. It is known to have declined to accept  work which does not toe anti-CDS line. Instead of looking at national security  imperatives in a holistic and interdisciplinary manner,  new think tanks have set narrow subjective objectives for themselves. For  example, one think tank feels that the constitution of aero-space command under  the Air Force aegis is the panacea for all security concerns and hence it must be  promoted vigorously. Another think tank looks at the Indian Ocean in isolation  while the third one remains embroiled in insurgency related issues.

They have thus  got reduced to furthering the official viewpoints of their respective funding  authorities to promote service interests in inter-service turf wars.

Worse, most  of the defence experts lack credibility. They change their opinion as per their  job requirements. Their lack of courage of conviction and fickle mindedness can  teach a few tricks to even professional political defectors. Experts, who  opposed Indo-US nuclear deal initially, turned its strongest supporters  overnight. Similarly, advocacy of CDS system got replaced by opposition with  the change of job. Defence experts have failed to establish reputation for stating  their mind honestly and hence, no one takes them seriously.

The only  silver lining in this otherwise dismal scenario is the effort being put in by a  few intrepid and enterprising individuals who have started defence journals to  provide a vehicle for the free-flow of ideas without fear and partisanship.  Their efforts deserve special praise as they possess limited resources but seek  no Government support to retain their independence. These journals can not be called  think tanks in the classical sense but they have been in the forefront of study  and analysis of strategic issues facing India. Their yeomen service needs  recognition.

The Way Forward
The Group of Ministers (GOM), constituted in the  wake of the Kargil War, while referring to research in India in the field of  defence observed –  “Whereas academic research is carried out more or  less in a policy vacuum, official agencies undertake their policy making tasks  in the absence of the wealth of information available with the academic  community. There is a need to ensure that the Government's policy and decision  making processes are informed by the findings of rigorous analyses and  research.” As it always happens, instead of identifying underlying reasons for  such a state of affairs and suggesting remedial measures, GoM recommended  creation of a defence university to fill the lacuna. The proposed university  will only add to the burgeoning government staff strength and contribute little  of value as the current mind-sets are unlikely to change.

Given our way of functioning, psyche and penchant  to play favourites, no improvement can be expected in the performance of  Government funded think tanks. They will continue to be perfunctory players, thriving on patronage rather than the quality of serious  research work. As no difference of opinion will ever be tolerated by the  Government functionaries, such think tanks will carry on churning out insipid,  irrelevant, indefinite and worthless studies. In short, they will remain as parking  slots for the well-connected and nothing else.

A large number of reputed think tanks in  the Western countries are either affiliated to universities or are funded by  foundations, trusts and individuals. That is the reason that they attract the  best research talent and produce independent works. India should also strive to  move in the same direction. Some universities do have departments for strategic  and defence studies but the scope of their work is highly limited at present.  They must be encouraged and supported.

Public apathy is one of the primary  reasons for the Government’s neglect of think tanks in India. The Government  knows that even the most critical decisions can be taken by it without any  questions being raised in the public domain. It is, therefore, incumbent on the  think tanks to inform and prepare the country men as regards the seriousness  and enormity of the security challenges faced by the country.

Only public pressure can force the  Government to take cognizance of the research studies and draw upon the  expertise of the think tanks. This is going to  be a tall order for a country that is overly secretive about all security  issues and prefers to keep the public in dark. Public, on the other hand, is  blissfully occupied with cricket, movie stars and petty politics. It has little  time for serious deliberation of security matters. Even the Parliament spends  more time discussing India’s cricket performance than the defence budget.

Box  1: The Indian Defence Expert
 All defence experts associated with  think tanks in India have some common traits. They are all survivors - regimes  come and regimes go but they go on for ever. They never criticize the  Government in the fear of losing benefaction. They always toe Government’s line  and have no qualms in changing their viewpoints as per the requirement of the  recipient. 

Ask the Indian defence experts to speak  on any subject and they start giving out well memorized statistics regarding  GDP, defence budget and various percentages. After a few standard clichés, they  sum up their talk advocating higher allocation for defence, need for  modernisation and requirement of revolution in military affairs. Having heard  them once, one can anticipate the complete talk on every subsequent occasion.  Most have developed a well cultivated style of talking in low serious monotone,  appearing over-burdened with national security concerns.

Most defence analysts can produce  volumes of research work on revolution in military affairs taking place in the  US but are unable to suggest a plan for India. Every defence expert writing on  the emerging Chinese threat recounts all well-documented Chinese activities to  reach the conclusion that India must be more assertive while dealing with  China. Such a study is of no value at all. One does not have to be a  China-expert to recommend that. A purposeful research work must spell out  different options with anticipated Chinese responses and own counteractions.  Finally, the most beneficial course of action must emerge.

An article written by a well known  defence expert that appeared recently in a leading daily pleaded with Mrs.  Sonia Gandhi to ensure operationalization of the Indo-US nuclear accord. He  wrote, “While the credit for conducting the tests may go to Atal  Bihari Vajpayee, the father of both the military nuclear programme and the  renewal of foreign civil nuclear cooperation is Rajiv Gandhi….. People all over  the country understand that the decision on nurturing Rajiv Gandhi’s legacy of  the nuclear issue rests wholly with Sonia Gandhi….. She should now listen to  her inner voice and not depend upon the advice of her veteran party advisors…..  Let her pause and reflect on her own. Rajiv Gandhi’s legacy is at stake.”
  It is only in India that a defence  expert can stoop to such reasoning and seek to influence national policy on  such a vital matter by appealing to a political leader to listen to her inner  voice for the sake of her late husband’s legacy. The appeal was not based on  any overriding national strategic considerations but amounted to emotional  coercion. The said article exposed the hollowness of our strategic community.  Unfortunately, India has been suffering such defence experts for far too long.

Finally,  research can not be carried out in a vacuum. What  India needs is institutionalization of strategic thinking and close interaction  between the strategic community and the policy makers. All well-meaning  trusts and foundations should come forward and help in the development of  independent think tank culture in India through applied and basic research of  issues of national concern to generate multiple courses of action with detailed  reasoning and inter-se merits. Policy makers should be able take  well-considered decisions. In other words, think tanks should act as a bridge  between the academic community and policymaking functionaries. More  importantly, they should provide independent, credible and candid analysis to  the public for informed debate of national security issues.

Box 2: Defence  Seminars or Networking Congregations
  Being the seat of the Government, almost  all think tanks are located in New Delhi. Conduct of seminars is one of the  regular activities undertaken by them. The methodology and the modus operandi  have been perfected over the years. A high sounding subject is chosen and  invitations sent to mutually obliging think tanks. Reciprocation of invitations  to chair seminars ensures continued limelight. An informal coterie of defence  experts has emerged to perpetuate and advance mutual interests.

Every seminar typically starts with  registration of delegates. The audience consists of invited ex-servicemen and  detailed serving military officers. The ex-servicemen invitees are always the  same on the seminar circuit whatever be the subject of the seminar. They are  selected for their availability and willingness to be seen in such forums  rather than for any known expertise. After inaugural and key note addresses by  eminent speakers (generally serving functionaries who sanction funds for the  host think tank), there is a prolonged break for tea. As this is the most  important occasion for networking and developing contacts, it invariably  overshoots the time allotted.   Thereafter, most of the invitees collect their folders and leave. Only  serving service officers are left behind. Occupancy gets reduced to 50 percent.

Although seminar papers are distributed  in advance, no invitee ever comes prepared. In the absence of background  knowledge, their questions are more in the nature of recounting their personal  experiences, howsoever irrelevant they may be. Another interesting aspect is  the time allotted to each guest speaker. In most cases, it is 40 minutes to  start with but gets reduced to 20 or even 10 minutes as the day progresses, to  ensure an extended lunch break. The seminar takes the form of an enjoyable  ‘male kitty party’, as an observer pointed out.

The seminar becomes active once again  closer to the time of the concluding address by another important functionary.  As he does not attend the full session, he is blissfully unaware of what was  discussed during the day. He invariably talks of his personal experiences and  concludes by mouthing hackneyed pearls of wisdom. The seminar thus ends on a  high note and with much mutual back thumping. In true kitty party tradition,  schedule of the next seminar and the name of the host are also announced. Au  Revoir.  

Editor  – Neither the Government nor a standalone think-tank can claim to have answers  to all security issues concerning India. What is required is for individuals  to, put their egos aside, and exchange thoughts continuously out of which a  workable action plan may emerge. Criticizing others may be a starting point but  the key is to create innovative research and suggest implementable solutions.

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