Do India’s foreign policy think tanks need to wield more power?

The Genesis

The idea germinated long back, with the 1960s being a defining period in India’s foreign policy and international relations. Several think tanks -working in areas of international politics and policy, security, economic and trade affairs – were set up in conjunction with governments and agencies.

The Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, New Delhi, was one such body that was set up in 1963, to focus on developing appropriate human resources to increase foreign trade management by making it professional through research, data analysis and information dissemination.+By 1965, India was engaged in wars with its neighbouring countries, and out of such bilateral crises were born think tanks of the stature of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Analysis (IDSA) in New Delhi, with help from the Ministry of Defence. IDSA’s mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues.

The 1980s saw a new wave in the rise and growth of think tanks in India. International affairs became the primary focus and, with it, we saw the emergence of New Delhi–based autonomous policy research institutes like the Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS) in 1984. RIS, supported by the Ministry of External Affairs, works on South–South cooperation and capacity building of developing countries on economic issues.

The Seventh Five Year Plan (1985-1990) brought think tanks into the government programme fold alright, but they were yet to be a voice to reckon with. They remained relegated in the background, playing an insignificant role in government policy making. Their area of influence, however, gradually started to widen post 1990s, with the think tanks participating in peace talks and larger bilateral issues. Establishment of the Delhi Policy Group in 1992 and that of The Liberty Institute in 1996 were a result of this.

Today, according to our own research, which adds onto the list developed by Khan and Köllner, there are 21 think tanks, including foreign think tanks, in India working on foreign policy  -some of which definitely consider themselves as foreign policy and strategic think tanks.+

  1. Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations
  2. Centre for Asian Strategic Studies-India (CASS-India)
  3. Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS)
  4. Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA)
  5. National Maritime Foundation (NMF)
  6. Forum For Integrated National Security (FINS)
  7. South Asia Analysis Group (SAAG)
  8. Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA)
  9. Takshashila Institution
  10. Observer Research Foundation (ORF)
  11. United Service Institution
  12. Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies
  13. Strategic Foresight Group
  14. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation (SPMRF)
  15. Carnegie India
  16. Brookings India
  17. Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF)
  18. India Foundation (IF)
  19. Ananta Aspen Centre
  20. Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)
  21. Centre for Policy Research (CPR)
  22. Delhi Policy Group
  23. Research and Information System for Developing Countries

In India, typically think tanks generate political space for dialogues and also contribute in developing new ideas. This increases the quality and effectiveness of the policy making process.

Today several foreign think tanks have set up base in India, but it is still not too clear if they have a play in India’s foreign policy issues.

Are they a force or on the fringe?

Flurry of conferences, vibrant discussions, intense roundtables on bilateral and other contentious issues in a multipolar world – we have seen all of that pick-up steam in the past few years. We get the drift, but how effective are these discourses? Or are the foreign policy think tanks in India more in the reactive mode than in the proactive?

Some of the think tanks in the space are funded by the government and are seen working so closely with it that there are concerns about them playing second fiddle to the policymakers. It’s felt the biases are bound to creep in and even their research agenda swings in the direction in which the funding wind blows.

These and many such questions and concerns are being raised today.

The think tanks in question, of course, disagree. Their argument being that they do receive funding, but not at the cost of the role they have to play. They say their stand is neutral and is not being compromised in any way.

We see the fractures though, but there likely are fixes.

There is, of course, the need to build a rich bank of research work, but one would like to see the think tanks probably deep dive a little more into policy frameworks and play bigger roles on the strategy side. They can also wear a different hat. Instead of driving mere debates and discussions, could they not play a more decisive role in veering the actual direction of discourses in the diplomatic corridors?

The influence they can wield in areas of geopolitics and security can help reposition political parleys and give new dimensions to trade agreements. Can these think tanks then play the role of a partner in governance and policy, rather than continue to just be an outside voice?

For more on foreign policy think tanks read a recent study by Raphaëlle Khan and Patrick Köllner, Foreign Policy Think Tanks in India: New Actors, Divergent Profiles, from the German Institute on Global and Area Studies on foreign policy think tanks in India concluded that:

Due to their expanding roles and particular connections, a number of Indian foreign policy think tanks have become important players to watch and engage with. There is, however, substantial variance within the Indian foreign policy think tank sector when it comes to quality of research, roles performed, and relations with the government. European policymakers and other stakeholders need to be aware of the diversity in the changing landscape of foreign policy think tanks in India if they wish to engage in the most functional and effective way with these organisations.

We take this as an invitation to reflect on Indian foreign policy think tanks.