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.