India’s involvement in global and regional policy debates on issues of peace and security, environment, regional cooperation, international trade and its preference for equity in international political and economic spheres has increased in recent years. While there is a long history often agreement with and analyses of think tanks in the Western world, the focus on private sponsored think tanks in India and their influence on foreign policy is an area that has received limited attention. India ranks 4th on the list of nations with the most number of think tanks, with nearly 100 new ones taking the country's total to 280 in 2015.( GGTTI report, 2015)
However before going into details of the involvement of private think tanks in India’s contemporary foreign policy making environment, it is important to look at the history and traditions with regards to foreign policy formulation in India. Nehru dominated thinking on Indian foreign policy and thereby institutions providing advice and expertise on foreign policy were not encouraged or strengthened.(Bhatnagar S, 2013) In the post Nehruvian era, the government did encourage some state funding for research on foreign policy issues, however the focus remained limited to area studies without espousing for a viable Indian foreign policy strategy. An interest in providing funding and support to independent research organizations was sparked by the economic liberalisation project launched by the Indian government in the early 1990s. The growing interest in India’s economic model, and India’s economic and political engagement with regional and international players, stimulated a demand for expertise on issues of foreign and security policy.
India has witnessed an increase in think tanks in recent years. The private sector has taken lead in funding some of these research organizations. Prominent think tanks which have received private sector support are the Observer Research Foundation, Gateway House, and the Ananta Aspen Center and many more. The foreign ministry is the biggest consumer of these ideas from 'outside'. In the last year, foreign secretary S Jaishankar has placed additional responsibility on a virtually defunct Policy Planning division. The ministry has broken new ground by hiring consultants not employed by the government. But in the new atmosphere of the state interacting with think tanks, the experience for government has not been one of unalloyed satisfaction.
Privately sponsored think-tanks which bear influence on Indian Foreign policy can be classified in 2ways. One, there is a rise of private think-tanks with close political party affiliations. When PM Narendra Modi took office, he appointed AK Doval as National Security Advisor and Nripendra Misra as Principal Secretary. Both were closely associated with the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF). VIF is an Indian think-tank specialised in International Relations and Diplomacy, is affiliated to the Vivekananda Kendra, which is in turn a charitable organisation affiliated to the Hindu nationalist volunteer organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Former IB director Ajit Doval was steering the ship at VIF as founder-director before he was appointed as Modi’s National Security Adviser. In fact, it was Doval who came up with the idea of inviting South Asian leaders to Modi’s oath-taking ceremony. (Tehelka, 2 August2014) After his stint as the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) chairman was over, Nripendra Misra became a member of the VIF’s executive council. Now, he is Modi’s principal secretary. There was a legal hitch in his appointment as TRAI law bars former chairmen from holding government positions. But Modi wanted him so bad that he tabled an ordinance to amend the law. (Mint, 9 Jun 2014) Former Union agriculture secretary PK Mishra was associated with the VIF as a Senior Fellow. Now, he is the additional principal secretary to the prime minister. Other VIF members whom the Modi regime has tapped for inputs include former RAW chief CD Sahay, former urban development secretary Anil Baijal, former ambassador to Russia Prabhat Shukla, former IAF chief SG Inamdar and former BSF chief Prakash Singh. The India Foundation (IF) has also gained prominence. IF's driving force is Ram Madhav, a former RSS spokesperson , a powerful BJP leader who has been laying the groundwork for the PM's foreign visits and engaging with foreign interlocutors. Key cabinet ministers are among its members. Ram Madhav wrote editorials on Pakistan and China in a national daily as a precursor to his joining the BJP later in the year. Madhav has emerged as Modi’s ‘ambassador at large’. (Business Standard, 29 November, 2014) He is credited with playing a key role in organising Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in mid-September in 2014, Modi’s speeches at Madison Square Garden in New York in end-September and the November 17 speech at the Allphones Arena in Sydney. He was also involved in addressing diaspora issue in United States & Australia. Such type of private think tanks derives its basic principles from close common shared political philosophy and promotes interest based on party ideology.
Two, Indian businesses have begun investing in creating policy research institutes and think-tanks, and the government has been engaging with such outfits. Big corporates have now started investing in research & analysis. They recruit intellectuals & academicians, conduct area specific research, organize discussion with ministers, give them presentations on research done, and recommend policy change if needed. Etc. Here, the question of who fund the think tank is very important. There is a possibility of bias reports, or undue importance given to one area of study in which funding party’s commercial interests are hidden rather than addressing the issues concerning nation as a whole, this may reflect while recommending government about polices which may result in giving bias solution which would only serve funding corporates’ interest rather than serving national interest. Although traditional players such as UN agencies, international foundations and the government continue to be influential in the think tank space, new entrants include private research consultancies and indigenous corporate houses, which partner as well as fund think tanks, often motivated by commercial concerns and partisan interests. These include Tata Sons, Maruti Udyog Ltd., Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, HDFC Bank, ACC Ltd., Reliance, Kotak Mahindra and Infosys, to name a few. Many private grants are meant for project-specific research, which very often borders on being ‘sponsored’ research.
The Observer Research Foundation is funded by Reliance; the Ananta Aspen Centre has a group of business leaders funding their operations. Foreign think-tanks too have begun setting up their India operations. Brookings now has an India office, which again is supported by wealthy Indian business leaders. Carnegie Endowment is expected to set up a local office by next year. The Observer Research Foundation (ORF) one of the leading think tanks has been closely involved with BRICS since its formation. As the designated Indian Track II coordinator for BRICS and member of the BRICS Think Tanks Council, ORF has provided knowledge inputs and helped to strengthen research collaboration with the other nodal BRICS coordinating institutions in the member countries.(ORF website data) ORF hosted the BRICS Academic Forums in 2009 and 2012 and helped in the drafting of a Long Term Vision for BRICS along with several relevant research publications. It coordinates with the other Track II partners to inform the wider research community and key stakeholders on the relevance, significance and expected output from BRICS. It must be noted that Reliance Industries has its business spread all over BRICS nations. It has defence manufacturing deals with Russia , joint venture with China’s Shandong Ruyi Science and Technology Group, It has merged with petrochemical company in Brazil called petro bras, Reliance communication business(Jio) in South Africa. ORF has been rated as a ‘Highly Opaque’ think tank by Transparif group based on how transparent is the think tanks and who funds them. (Transparify Group Rport, 2015)
Gatway House, another prominent think tank funded by corp orates such as Mahindra Group, Suzlon energy, TVS Motor Company etc. It is a foreign policy think-tank established in 2009, to engage India’s leading corporations and individuals in debate and scholars on India’s foreign policy and its role in global affairs. It targeted companies which has over 40% exports, thinking they would be more interested in foreign policy and undertakes research based on interest of business group targeted. (Gateway House Website) Gateway House Meetings, a forum through which members, global leaders, prominent thinkers, corporations, diplomats, scholars and state administrators can debate India’s foreign policy are a regular occurrence. Gateway House has hosted several meetings with influential foreign policy opinion makers and leaders from around the world.
Another example of corporate think tank tanks having influence on India’s foreign policy is of Ananta Aspen Centre led by its co-patrons Dr. Henry Kissinger and Mr. Ratan Tata. It is also financed by corporates such as Gautam Thapar (Avantha Group), CK Birla (CKBirla group), Sanjiv Goenka (RP-Sanjiv Goenka Group), Naina Lal Kidwai(CEO and Country Head of HSBC India). Its chair is Jamshyd Godrej (Godrej & Boyce). The Centre was initially a result of collaboration between CII and Aspen - but over the years, while it has relationships with both, it has evolved into an autonomous entity. Ananta has a good relationship with the government. Business leaders with country specific interests invest in these dialogues and also participate in them. It convenes over ten strategic dialogues with countries like China, Japan, Singapore, Israel, Turkey, and Bhutan. Some have become Track 1.5 in nature, because of the presence of a relevant Joint Secretary from the MEA or the Indian ambassador when it is happening outside the country. Visiting delegations also get to meet the local government, including senior ministers and events hosted by the centre have seen high level government participation including of NSA Doval and cabinet ministers.(16 Aug 2015)
Another example is that issues like the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor, Yunnan Academy in China has played a positive role in promoting dialogue with Indian think tanks. The Centre for Studies in International Relations and Development, based in Kolkata, these two organizations, in China and India, has in fact strengthened the Kunming-Kolkata (K2K) dialogue. This way is influence government on international issues related to China. (
When Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar took over office; he made it clear that a key priority for him would be reviving the policy planning division of the Ministry of External Affairs. He brought in a new Joint Secretary, and indicated that the division would have more resources. It could hire experts from outside the government; and it was tasked to enhance engagement with the city's think-tanks. The government has also appointed a new head for the MEA-supported think-tank, with a brief to ramp up its operations. The state in India has historically been more open to outside expertise in the realm of the economy. From Manmohan Singh and Montek Singh Ahluwalia to Arvind Panagriya and Arvind Subramanian, the executive has brought in experts at the highest levels. The Niti Ayog itself has been envisaged as a think-tank. While slowly this has extended to the strategic affairs space, influence of private sponsored think tanks on foreign policy formulation will gradually be increasing.
Influencing through think tank has become a popular way of participating in foreign policy decision making. Although all think tanks promote themselves as being non-partisan, but that doesn't mean that they are non-biased. Most research from think tanks is ideologically driven in accordance with the interests of its funders. Many are non-profit organizations funded by major foundations, businesses and private donations, some are funded directly by governments and special interest groups, and some are funded to do work on a specific particular mandate. Since they work as per the needs of the funders, seeking advice from such think tanks may prove to be harmful for government as think tanks may try to push agenda of those who fund them rather than working on issues which are really important and urgent and of national interest. They have become part of a political competition between interests and ideological groups because ideas about policy are weapons in that battle. This makes think tanks inherently political and non-independent.
Understanding the power of think tanks, it is very much important to be become as independent as possible. As thinks tanks are actively and closely involved in policy formation with government, researcher or analyst should be bold enough to generate true opinions without any pressure which would cater to national interest rather than serving just a handful people.
Government when hiring external expertise there is a possibility of being consulted by biased or interest specific groups. It is possible that those policymakers are given the highly skewed knowledge & it may be possible to manoeuvre public opinion, especially if the media is not alert or is biased. Therefore, while decision making it has to be as independent as possible and should not only hear agency views but also opponent or criticism before reaching to the conclusion of policy formation.
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