About 20 years ago, George Tanham, a senior defence analyst with RAND Corporation set the cat among the pigeons when he wrote that India lacked a strategic culture (Washington Quarterly, reprinted in Lancer’s Indian Defence Review, April 1992). The pros and cons of India’s strategic culture, or lack of it, can be debated ad infinitum. However, one aspect that has certainly been neglected is the role that strategic and international affairs think tanks can play in shaping the contours of India’s national security by providing independent analysis and inputs.
Think tanks are normally autonomous or semi-autonomous research institutions that produce ‘policy-relevant knowledge and options. Richard N. Haas, Director of Policy and Planning, United States (US) Department of State and himself a reputed think tank expert, has listed five major ways in which think tanks contribute to shaping policy: “By generating original ideas and options for policy formulation, by supplying a ready pool of experts for employment in government, by offering venues for high-level discussions, by educating US citizens about the world and by supplementing official efforts to mediate and resolve conflicts.”
Contribution of US Think Tanks
American think tanks have played a unique advisory role in policy formulation and clearly, India has much to learn from the American experience. It would be productive to review the role that these think tanks have played in shaping US foreign and national security policy.
It can be stated with some justification that think tanks are a distinctively American phenomenon. There are about 1,500 think tanks in the US. These are so much a part of the strategic landscape that most Americans comprising the “foreign policy public” (a term coined by Prof Ernest May of Harvard) are convinced that they play an invaluable role in shaping US policy. James G. McGann of the Foreign Policy Research Institute is of the view that the US think tanks “engage in a range of policy-related activities and comprise a diverse set of institutions…” and aid the policy planning process more profoundly than is generally appreciated.
Richard Haas has written: “Think tanks… fill a critical void between the academic world, on the one hand, and the realm of government, on the other. Think tanks’ primary contribution… is to help bridge this gap between the worlds of ideas and action…” Haas feels that these think tanks are good facilitators of Track-II negotiations and have often provided ‘non-partisan settings’ to US officials to explain current policy, announce new initiatives and launch trial balloons.
The US think tanks vary in organisation, scope and focus and have diverse mandates and sources of funds. These think tanks are by and large unencumbered by official views and provide frank assessments of emerging challenges and possible solutions. American think tanks disseminate their output through multiple channels of communication with the target audience or clientele. The most common method is to publish books, articles, monographs and occasional papers and send copies to policy and decision-makers. Their research fellows, scholars and staff appear regularly on television and give frequent interviews to newspapers. Many eminent analysts write columns for the editorial and op-ed pages of leading newspapers and travel widely all over the world to propagate their ideas, as well as to utilise the occasions as sounding boards to discern the views of analysts and policy-planners abroad. Another mode of reaching out is by issuing policy briefs and fact-sheets and, increasingly, maintaining frequently updated web pages.
Prominent US think tanks in the foreign policy and national security fields include the Brookings Institution (http://www.brook.edu), the Council on Foreign Relations (http://www.cfr.org), the RAND Corporation (http://www.rand.org), the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (http://www.csis.org), the United States Institute of Peace (http://www.usip.org), the CATO Institute (http://www.cato.org), the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (http://www.ceip.org) and the Heritage Foundation (http://www.heritage.org). The list is far from exhaustive and think tanks like the Henry L. Stimson Centre, among others, also enjoy a fair amount of credibility. Most of them are anchored at Washington D.C. or have branches in the US capital. Their annual budgets range from US$ 5 to 30 million, except RAND that has an annual budget in excess of US$ 100 million.
Prof Andrew Rich, who has studied think tanks, concluded in a report about five years ago: “Think tanks remain a principal source of information and expertise for policy-makers and journalists… Their studies and reports are regularly relied upon to guide and/or bolster members of Congress in their legislative efforts and journalists in their reporting.” Another major reason for the present prominence of think tanks is the perception that think tanks break down the barriers that government bureaucracies usually create as they are:
• More futuristic in their approach than government research functionaries, who work in an environment in which efforts at creative disruption are rarely rewarded.
• More likely to generate fresh policy agendas vis a vis maximising standard operating procedures.
• Better able to facilitate collaboration among separate groups of researchers for a common purpose, as they have no permanent interest in any one domain.
• Better able than government agencies to disseminate relevant policy research within government and externally to policy elites, the media and the public.
• Better suited to deal with the cross-cutting nature of global policy issues.
• Better able to convene and engage stakeholders in the policy-making process.
• Better able to ‘telescope’ the policy process – from data collection to knowledge/policy formulation.
• Better able to conceive the means of implementation than government bureaucracies, which may be internally segmented by department and area of specialisation.
The US Defence Department aids the think tanks and “helps supplement the knowledge base on Capitol Hill with the defence fellows programme, which sends 60 people from the armed services to work on a House or Senate staff for a year. The military also details staff to the State Department and other government agencies to foster coordination and the ability to respond rapidly to events,” writes Lorelei Kelly, a senior associate with the Henry L. Stimson Centre, Washington. The defence fellows provide a military perspective in decision-making and help explain the military complexity of emerging challenges and new threats. The broad-ranging institutional and hands-on operational knowledge of military officers makes them a unique resource for security policy formulation.
Indian Think Tanks
Unfortunately, very little effort is being made to educate Indian civilian and armed forces officers in strategic studies and international affairs. The proposed National Defence University is still in a nascent state. Only a handful of universities have defence studies departments and even these find it extremely difficult to attract students. ‘Generalist’ bureaucrats without any expertise provide inputs for defence policy decisions to the political leadership. In the words of H. M Patel, India’s first Defence Secretary, “the ignorance of civilian officials in defence matters is so complete as to be a self-evident and incontrovertible fact.” This has not changed over the last six decades since independence. Despite having armed forces that range among the five largest armed forces in the world, strategic studies and international affairs think tanks in India are few in number. While it is true that institutions like the National Defence College (NDC) and to a limited extent the three war colleges (the Army War College, Mhow, the College of Naval Warfare, Mumbai, and the College of Air Warfare, Secunderabad) provide training in strategic issues, these are not think tanks that debate the pros and cons of alternative policy options. HQ ARTRAC could be called the official think tank of the Indian Army, but its role is limited to supervising training in the army’s training institutions and conducting formation-level (division and corps) war games based on intelligence inputs. For example, HQ ARTRAC kept track of the Chinese plans to divert river waters, but it was a CLAWS seminar that sensitised the bureaucracy and the nation to the serious implications of the proposed Chinese river projects for India,
For many decades the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), founded in 1965, was India’s only strategic studies think tank. The late K Subrahmanyam, IDSA’s founding Director, straddled the strategic studies scenario like a colossus for over 30 years. The Indian media lacked journalists specialising in national security. The few articles that appeared on national security were written mainly by retired generals, admirals and marshals and a few former foreign secretaries. Honourable exceptions included General J. N. Chowdhary’s regular columns in The Statesman while he was still in service. There were few defence and security related journals and these were mainly professional journals of the various training establishments and regiments or wings of the armed forces.
However, since the May 1998 Pokhran-II nuclear tests and India’s declaration of itself as a nuclear-armed state, India’s strategic culture is being gradually re-shaped to a more resurgent and vigorous one and India has at long last launched a quest for strategic autonomy. New think tanks are springing up and new journals are hitting the stands. Newspapers, including the business dailies, now carry national security and defence related news items and opinion pieces fairly regularly. Even the dotcoms have joined the bandwagon – the web pages of regular newspapers as well as pure web-based news magazines have begun carrying much greater strategic and defence-related news content. Television news channels now just cannot seem to have enough of defence-related reportage and panel discussions even if some are purely sensational in content.
IDSA is the leading strategic studies think tank in South Asia. It has excellent infrastructure for research. Its annual Asian Security seminar, held in January each year, is a landmark event in Asia’s security calendar. In a mutually beneficial arrangement, the armed forces have now started sending three to four research fellows every year to IDSA and the civil services are gradually following suit. The Indian Foreign Service and the Border Security Force have sent one research fellow each. Dennis Kux, the well-known author of Estranged Democracies, was IDSA’s first international fellow on a Fulbright fellowship. Strategic Analysis, the premier monthly journal of IDSA, is well known and is often cited by renowned international scholars though it still has some way to go before it measures up fully to famous international journals.
Despite the gross indifference of India’s national security establishment in the past, IDSA Directors, notably K. Subrahmanyam and Jasjit Singh, continued to plough a lonely furrow and have been instrumental in shaping key defence policy issues. For example, the concept of “minimum credible deterrence” as a viable nuclear policy alternative for India was advocated extensively by IDSA. IDSA alumni are serving on the editorial staff of leading national newspapers and as professors in the international studies departments of universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University. In future, IDSA is likely to be called upon to provide consultancy to government departments and be given autonomous projects much like RAND and other reputable international think tanks. While IDSA has established itself as the premier strategic studies think tank in South Asia and conducted many well received international seminars, it has yet to produce a single book that is of seminal significance. It has concentrated mainly on foreign policy and area studies and has not done enough to promote hard core defence studies.
Other major think tanks include the Centre for Policy Research, a multi-disciplinary think tank promoted by the Government of India in 1973. The Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) was founded in 1996 by Mr P R Chari, a former IAS officer and Maj Gen Dipankar Banerjee, a former Deputy Director of IDSA and has several research programmes and a very active website. Mr K Shankar Bajpai, a former Indian ambassador, has been Chairman of the Delhi Policy Group, founded by a business house with Lt Gen Vijay Raghavan heading the security studies programme and Dr Radha Kumar heading the peace and conflict programme. The Observer Research Foundation, founded by the late Mr R K Mishra is being supported by the Reliance Group. The Institute of Chinese Studies has been supported by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi. All of these think tanks have together contributed to serious discussion of major national security issues and have brought out some good publications.
Armed Forces Think Tanks: Good Beginning
For many decades,the National Defence College (NDC), New Delhi, remained the only formal think tank run by the armed forces. However, successive commandants at the NDC did not pay much attention to the think tank function of the NDC’s charter and continued to lay emphasis primarily on its training role. The research studies undertaken by the officers undergoing training at NDC were not published or widely circulated. In October 2001, Air Cmde Jasjit Singh, former Director, IDSA, founded the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS) and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). While CSIS remained somewhat low key in its activities, CAPS began to flourish with support from the Indian Air Force. Soon, the Indian Army sponsored the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) in January 2004 and the Indian Navy raised the National Maritime Foundation (NMF) in February 2005. In due course, Lt Gen H S Lidder, CISC, HQ Integrated Defence Staff, conceived a tri-Service think tank to undertake research into joint operations and India’s immediate neighbourhood and the Centre for Joint Warfare Studies (CENJOWS) came up. All of these think tanks are located at New Delhi.
The establishment of these think tanks by the three Services HQ and HQ IDS was a very pragmatic step as a need had been felt for long to encourage armed forces officers to graduate to thinking at the strategic level and broaden their horizon by undertaking research activities. These think tanks conducted many far-reaching seminars, both in Delhi and jointly with various Command HQ, and initiated a slew of good quality publications. All of them began to publish flagship journals, issue briefs and occasional papers. They also undertook research projects on behalf of Services HQ, Command HQ and other institutions. These think tanks have conducted many seminars jointly with defence journals and the chambers of commerce so as to bring overseas and Indian defence industry representatives to showcase future weapons technology to serving officers of the armed forces. However, the four think tanks soon fell short of funds and were eventually bailed out by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) by being given a corpus amount of Rs 10 crore (US$ 2 million approximately) each in two tranches for day-to-day expenditure, besides being provided limited infrastructure support by way of housing in defence buildings. However, a few years down the line inflation and falling interest rates have taken their toll and the corpus amount is no longer sufficient to consolidate present activities and expand further. All of these think tanks need another infusion of funds if they are to grow and rise to international standards.
Indian National Defence University
The Indian National Defence University (INDU) is expected to be set up in a few years. This will be a teaching university-cum-premier think tank. A Task Force to review the management of defence had been constituted by the Government of India in May 2001. The Task Force had observed that “at present despite fairly large infrastructure of research centres and institutes, research activities are limited, they are poorly managed, funded and structured; and, they are not oriented to public policy.” The Task Force had recommended the establishment of a National Defence University (NDU) to carry out research and education. This recommendation was accepted by the government. The university will be committed to open and free enquiry and scholarly debate. It will serve as a think tank contributing to policy formulation and debates on security and strategy.
National security think tanks in India are gradually coming into their own as it is now realised that the government must get alternative policy options from the strategic community if India is to successfully face emerging threats and challenges. The demand for national security analysts is now burgeoning and many new think tanks may be expected to emerge and grow exponentially in the decades ahead. As India grows to its true potential as a regional power and begins to play its rightful role in the international arena, like their American counterparts, Indian think tanks will no doubt contribute immensely to the understanding of present and future strategic challenges and will increasingly assume greater importance in generating ‘new thinking’ that will lead to more comprehensive policy-formulation. Overall, Indian think tanks will undoubtedly play an important role in nation building and enhance India’s national security consciousness. However, the nation is not there yet.
(The author is Adjunct Fellow, Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington, D.C.)
[Courtesy: Defence and Security Alert (DSA), September 2014]