This Article is From Mar 01, 2017

The Growing Role Of Government-Approved Think Tanks

When the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) pulled its Rs 1 crore annual grant to the Institute of Chinese Studies at the end of January, the rest of the think-tank community sat up and took notice.

For the first time in decades, the MEA's Policy Planning cell, headed by joint secretary Santosh Jha, was exercising the right to direct funding to meet objectives delineated by Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar, the MEA's top diplomat.

The move reminded old-timers of the good old days when G Parthasarathy, a close advisor to Mrs Indira Gandhi, ran the Policy Planning cell in the MEA, and along with PN Haksar, virtually ran India's foreign policy.

In many ways, Jha is similarly powerful. He presides over a 27-crore empire that disburses grants and aid to India's think-tank community, which in recent times has begun to rival the media for influence.

Controlling the money pipeline is only another code word for access. Being close to the MEA means that your think-tank policy brief may well wind up on the desk of the Foreign Secretary, the National Security Advisor and maybe, even the Prime Minister.

In fact, the PM's decision to tighten sources of information - manifested in his refusal to keep a Media Advisor in his office - has meant that at least on the foreign policy spectrum, think-tanks have begun to supplant the media.

Certainly, they have become platforms for the dissemination of information.

When was the last time, for example, you saw the Foreign Secretary subject himself to an on-the-record interview with any newspaper or TV channel, in which he explained the government's thinking on foreign affairs? Hard to remember, right?

Well, it was at the Mumbai-based Gateway House think-tank's Geoeconomic Dialogue recently that S Jaishankar spoke about how there was no need for India to "demonise (US president) Trump, but to analyse him."

That conversation between the Foreign Secretary and head of the India chapter of the US think-tank Carnegie Foundation, Dr C Raja Mohan, was carefully scrutinized by journalists as well as diplomats in Delhi and elsewhere.

And if some looked askance as to why a "foreign" think-tank, in this case Carnegie India, was in conversation with the Foreign Secretary, well, here's another departure from the old, ossified thinking in government.

"Foreign" think-tanks, like Carnegie and Brookings, both of which have opened offices in India and attracted large funding from Indian corporates, are no longer beyond the "lakshman rekha" of foreign policy-making. Carnegie India has, in fact, received a sum of approximately Rs 15 lakhs from the MEA for its Tech Summit held in Bangalore recently - which was also attended by the Foreign Secretary.

Brookings India, meanwhile, has been much more careful about so-called conflict-of-interest issues because Jaishankar's son, Dhruva, works there.

A second takeaway from the MEA's new think-tank policy is that the money will follow policy briefs that "are relevant to MEA policy-making." Sources said the Rs 1 crore annual grant to ICS was largely being used to pay salaries, rather than producing policy briefs. Some money is still expected to flow to ICS, but based on the projects they apply for.

The Rs 1 crore taken away from ICS will now go to the Centre for China Analysis & Strategy (CCAS), a Delhi-based think-tank that focuses on China's strategic goals and Tibet policy. CCAS is run by Jayadev Ranade, a former officer of India's foreign intelligence agency, the Research & Analysis Wing.

Third, the MEA seems happy to distribute money to RSS and BJP-associated think-tanks. Although in their case, it is likely that funding decisions are made in the Prime Minister's Office, above the pay-grade of the Foreign Office. Of course, the MEA provides full support in organizing their events and conferences.

Last July, for example, the MEA partnered with the India Foundation, run by RSS-BJP leader Ram Madhav and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval's son Shaurya, to hold an Indian Ocean Conference in Singapore.

The Junior Minister for External Affairs, MJ Akbar, and the Foreign Secretary addressed the event. External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj spoke via video link.

In the coming days, the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) - once headed by Ajit Doval, with whom the VIF keeps in close contact - will be hosting the Indraprastha Dialogue, on matters relating to India's "Act East" policy and India's relations with the greater Bay of Bengal community. The MEA will partly fund this dialogue.

Other more secular institutions are also, at least partially, funded by the MEA. Like Siddharth Shriram's Delhi Policy Group, which is being given funds to run an annual conference in Japan. Or the Ananta Centre, run by former CII chief mentor Tarun Das, which will now be funded to run an India-US conference.

But the MEA's favourite think-tank is clearly the Mukesh Ambani-funded Observer Research Foundation, which runs a highly successful event called the Raisina Dialogue, on the model of Singapore's Shangri-La Dialogue. None other than Modi delivered the keynote address this year.

It seems the PM is keen that this becomes India's signature foreign policy event to rival China's Boao Forum as well as the Switzerland-based Davos Forum. Gossip is that the Davos organisers weren't happy that Raisina takes place at the same time. MEA sources said it gives about Rs 1.75 crores to ORF and the Foreign Secretary is closely involved in its organization as well as debriefing.

Even the Research & Information System for Developing Countries (RIS) think-tank, the policy arm of the MEA which receives grants in the region of Rs 6-7 crores annually, has had its funding recently tightened. All projects are now cleared by Santosh Jha.

The Indian Council for World Affairs (ICWA), the other MEA think-tank run by former diplomat Nalin Surie, also gets an annual Rs 10-11 crores funding from the mother ministry. The ICWA will soon hold a "Bridging the Gulf" dialogue, on India's relations with the Gulf and West Asia, alongside conferences on China and Russia

But ICWA events, although reasonably high on content, have little of the razzmatazz  private organisations like the ORF and Gateway House successfully pull off. Certainly, it's the difference between old-style diplomacy and new. In the old-style, diplomats spoke off the record and wanted to keep a low profile, seeking to expand influence behind the scene.  

In the new-style, the MEA is keen on using partners, both within and outside, to be its instruments of public leverage.

(Jyoti Malhotra has been a journalist for several years and retains an especial passion for dialogue and debate across South Asia.)

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