Indian think tanks: a historical background

29 June 2018
SERIES Indian think tanks: a view on their journey 6 items

The rise of think tanks in India began in the 1930s. This section has been divided into different time periods in an effort to understand the history of the think tank sector and the challenges they might face going forward.

1930s to early 1950s

The establishment of think tanks can be traced to India’s pre-independence era. The first Indian think tank was the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics in Pune in 1930, and its main mission was to teach and conduct research in economics and politics. Subsequently, more think tanks were established and their missions widened to serve various issues ranging from education, health, and international relations, to name a few. The Rockefeller Foundation, for instance, set up offices in India to focus on medicine and public health. The Sir Doraji Tata Graduate School of Social Work (later renamed as the Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS)) was established in 1936 with a two-pronged aim: to address social work education and to undertake social research. The Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) was established close to the country’s independence as a think tank intended to study international relations and foreign affairs and bring visibility to India’s foreign relations.

The National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog (erstwhile Planning Commission) + is a governmental policy think tank founded on January 1, 2015. However, its history goes back to 1953, when the Planning Commission set up the Research Programmes Committee (RPC) to chart a robust research agenda. The committee consisted of leading social scientists and economists who helped design the government’s research agenda. As a result, most think tanks channelled their research agenda to economic growth and ensured that government policies were implemented effectively.

The primary task of these early research institutes was to bring clarity and information on economics and development issues. Most of these research institutes had a government representative on their Board to ensure that they could reach their intended audience: policy-makers.

1950 to 1970

In the later part of the 1950s the Indian government experienced a strained relationship with international foundations. The government wanted to exercise greater control over foreign institutions and said they were willing to forego foreign funding to ensure the self-respect of the recipients of these funds.+ The government of India wanted to exercise control and guard the think tank ecosystem, in particular through their relationships with international agencies. In 1977, Mr. Moraji Desai, who would later become Prime Minister, said that India would not take support from international foundations if they did not provide this support with humility and through procedures which protected the self-respect of their recipients.+

In 1973, the Rockefeller Foundation withdrew its support to India and, simultaneously, the Ford Foundation reduced its operations with the government and began focusing on NGOs.  The void created by the withdrawal of two major funders resulted in a growth of think tanks aimed at pursuing independent foreign policy research and creating an autonomous model of development.

The late 1970s and 1980s witnessed a growth of think tanks focused on environment and sustainable development research, and also saw the emergence of grass roots level think tanks. This could be because various international funding agencies believed that involving civil society organisations increased the chances of policy goals being delivered.

An example of this is the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), which was set up in 1963. It started as a research organisation, but due to change in the political environment at the time, CSDS embarked on a mission to ‘bring people back on the agenda’ by participating in complex engagements with social movements. It initially focussed on electoral studies, and then expanded to research grassroots movements, political and human rights, comparative democracy, media, cities, the public domain, social and political theory, as well as Indian languages. Today CSDS continues to lay emphasis on the importance of empirical research in politics. CSDS became instrumental in supporting the activities of think tanks: at a time when social circles seemed to be neatly divided between tradition and modernity, CSDS adapted the modernisation theory. The collective thinking generated by this unease led to a profound questioning of western modernity. Hence, at a time when virtually everyone was in the thrall of western social science, scholars at CSDS began scrutinising the fundamental cultural and intellectual assumptions underlying it and started a thorough search for alternative paradigms.+

1980s and 1990s

Indian think tanks were at a crossroads- some were receiving funds from international donor agencies, others from the government and others from trusts and foundations. With no concrete evidence available, it is difficult to give a precise count of how many think tanks were in operation during this time period. However, based on research conducted for this series, we can estimate there were over 70 think tanks prevalent in India during this time period.

The 1980s’ scenario also saw a wave of new think tanks focused on international affairs. This change in focus was fostered and supported by the Research and Information System (RIS) for Developing Countries established in 1984. According to Prof. Chaturvedi, RIS was set up to “(…) keep strengthening mechanism of providing analytical support and policy research inputs by bringing all stakeholders at a common platform”.+  RIS functions autonomously and is supported by the Ministry of External Affairs to work on South–South cooperation and capacity building of developing countries on economic issues.+

In 1986, the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research in Mumbai, supported by the Reserve Bank of India, was set up to carry out research on development in a multidisciplinary framework. This centre soon developed into a teaching and research organisation, focused on understanding the impact of international trading and financial and economic systems on developmental strategies of developing countries. It continues to work towards fostering economic and technical cooperation among developing countries and their strategies for international forums and negotiations.


The Centre for Contemporary Studies was set up in 1990 to promote research on modern history, development and changing trends in the world economy and polity from an Indian perspective. This initiative was supported by the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Efforts were made by both the government and several organisations for think tanks and civil society organisations to focus on peace and quell the rise of insurgencies, especially in the northeast and tribal regions.

In 1991 the changing political scenario in India provided a platform for the growth of action based think tanks. The political upheaval had a huge impact on social movements against globalisation and its symbols, such as big dams, multinational corporations, special economic zones, land acquisitions, etc. To counter this and to conduct research on government policies, several think tanks were set up. The initiation of the Seventh Five Year Plan (1985-1990) compelled think tanks to participate in government programmes. However, this did not give think tanks a mainstream approach and, instead, they were relegated to play a minor role in the government’s policy-making mechanism. This decade was also witness to debates on the global shift in power, specifically after the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a multi-polar world. Given India’s projected role as an emerging power, new think tanks were set up to research various aspects of international affairs from an Indian perspective. Thus, the role of think tanks also increased and widened to address issues like peace and international affairs. In 1992, the Delhi Policy Group was established with the objective of handling issues including governance and conflict and peace and, in 1996, the Liberty Institute was set up in New Delhi to promote the government’s activities and policies.

It is important to note that the late 1990s saw a dramatic change in the Indian political arena: new political parties emerged and various political parties formed alliances. By the end of the 1990s, Indian think tanks had widened the scope of their research topics in response to the changing political and social scenarios.


In 2016, it is estimated that around 280 think tanks were established in the country. This ranked India as the country with the fourth largest number of think tanks after the United States, China and Britain. These think tanks primarily focus on conducting research on government policy, organise conferences and produce publications, engaging with the government, the private sector, those in academia and the media. +

According to the 2015 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report the increase in the number of TTs in India could be due to the following reasons:

  • Revolution in information and technology development
  • Increase in the technical nature and complexity of policy issues
  • Rise of globalisation and its impact on all
  • Understanding the global impact on policy issues

The decade also witnessed the establishment of foreign think tanks in India, like the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), and the Aspen Institute. In parallel, the Indian armed forces gave a boost to think tanks like the Centre for Land and Warfare Studies (CLAWS), the National Maritime Foundation (NMF) and the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), along with the Centre for Joint Warfare Studies (CENJOWS), to address issues related to warfare. Some think tanks in Delhi have initiated an idea to work in a cohort to contribute to India’s foreign decision policy-making process.+ One important factor is that if this cohort can work with a strong strategy and the right information, they would be in a position to help the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the government.

Another significant factor is that while the government continues to fund some of the think tanks via the Defense Studies and the Analysis and Indian Council of World Affairs, the private sector has also began to enter this arena. For example, the Observer Research Foundation receives funds from Reliance Industries and Gateway House, which are funded by the Mahindra group.

In recent years the change in the political scenario due to the rise of coalition governments has fragmented the democratic process. In addition to this, India’s position in the global scenario has also undergone several changes. The proliferation of international agencies in policy research, civic activities have established liberalised think tanks, which has clearly given rise to the need for ingenious and dispassionate sources to support government policies.

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