The last five years have seen think tanks grow at exponential rates in India. According to numbers reported in University of Pennsylvania’s Global Go To Think Tank Index Reports, published from 2008 to 2020, it has gone up from 121 in 2008 to 612 in 2020. Interestingly, this figure has increased threefold between 2015 and 2020. Moreover, as of 2020, India is ranked the third highest in total think tank numbers across the world, after the United States and China.
While think tanks have shaped policy debates and public opinion for a long time, this increase in their numbers has been gradual. Studies that observe the rise of think tanks globally locate this growth in the complicated and technical nature of policy questions in the 21st century, and greater democratisation of data, which is no longer only in the hands of the State.
How think tanks have grown
The attitude of the Narendra Modi government towards newer ideas in policy was exemplified in 2014, when the PM proposed that “the input of intellectual think tanks should be substantially enhanced for better policy frameworks.”
Soon after, in 2015, the Planning Commission became NITI Aayog, where it was positioned as a think tank with sanction from the State. Headed by bureaucrats but employing an array of ex-planning commission employees and young researchers, the dynamics within this organisation underwent a change, and NITI began conversing with think tanks to advise the government on policies in a big way.
A more diverse pool of funding has also become available, which exists beyond the State. Our analysis of the annual reports of the 18 think tanks featured in the University of Pennsylvania’s Global Go To Think Tank Index Report 2020 showed that the income sources of Indian think tanks range from consultancy projects and donations to funding from a diverse stakeholder set-up—including government departments, philanthropists, corporations and international organisations. Newer think tanks are also looking at creative finance mechanisms, like crowd-funding.
The relationship between funding source and research output is mediated by numerous factors, and think tanks are defining themselves in a range of affiliations—from being for-profit to autonomous and independent, quasi-independent, university affiliated, political party affiliated, and governmental.
In a vibrant landscape of actors, older think tanks with big research portfolios such as the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) and the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) co-exist with newer organisations with specialised focus areas, like the Ola Mobility Institute. The geographical spread of these organisations is wider today, with think tanks concerned with policies in various levels of governance being set up away from New Delhi as well.
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Increasing relevance of think tanks
The formation of NITI Aayog marked a change in how think tanks worked with the government. A classic example is the work that NITI is doing with the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI)’s India chapter. In a scope that spans the entire range of policy formulation and implementation, RMI offers intellectual inputs to NITI on framing clean energy and mobility transformation policies. For this, it works with leading power distribution companies in India to integrate clean energy technologies and support the rollout of electric buses under the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric and Hybrid Vehicles scheme, and the smart cities initiative.
Moreover, apart from directly influencing policy by providing inputs for specific questions, think tanks also exert influence by convening not only policy makers and heads of State, but also actors from business, media, research and civil society for enabling discussion among these different actors. Since 2016, ORF has been organising an annual conference in collaboration with the Ministry of External Affairs, called the Raisina Dialogue. This conference is said to be an integral part of PM Modi’s objective of enhancing India’s diplomatic influence, and a medium of communicating Indian priorities in foreign policy.
Think tanks also work with the government in writing and publishing policy reports. The draft committee of the National Education Policy 2019, for instance, had representation from ORF. Similarly, in a working document that is looking to examine Enforcement Mechanisms for Responsible AI for All, Vidhi Centre For Legal Policy offered inputs to NITI Aayog.
These instruments of influence offer starting points for perusing the link between think tanks and policy, but there is a vast scope for further engaging with it empirically, which has not been done so far. This need is further highlighted by contemporary trends where, as a paradox to the proliferation, an undermining of democratic processes and rise of new information environments has led to growing skepticism of relevance and credibility of think tanks in India and across the world.
Therefore, understanding how these institutions play a role in forming public opinion and enabling policy outcomes is necessary to establish their credibility. The research community in India needs to proactively analyse how think tanks influence policy formulation and implementation, shape public opinion and advocate concerns at national and international fora.
The authors would like to thank Pragya Narayanan and Ovee Karwa for research and editing inputs. Anusha Rajan is an intern, Sahil Deo is the co-founder and partner, and Omkar Sathe is a partner at CPC analytics, a boutique data-driven public policy consulting firm with offices in Berlin and Pune. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)