In defense of private think-tanks

In defense of private think-tanks

In India, the public policy industry was one of the first to be de facto nationalized. After all the aim of the Indian leadership at one point (for reasons of ideology or expediency) was indeed to nationalize almost everything – we remember Nehru’s stab at agricultural collectivization and Indira’s successful bank nationalization. In such a scenario, why not make sure that you control those who make prominent and prolific suggestions about policy in the first place? Public policy keeps busy a subset of the broader intelligentsia – universities, journals, and newspapers. How to tame them?

Nehru himself – and multitudes of Nehruvians later on – accomplished this in many ways. First, comprehensively control the universities and distribute the many tenured teaching and research jobs (sinecures?) to fellow leftists. The academic system is such that it reinforces, not counteracts, initial bias – and is consequently very path dependent. A few Marxists are parachuted into a relatively sane sociology department; then they offer plum foreign trips and seminars to committed comrades.

The moderate Marxists soon realized that genuine reconstruction (as opposed to terminological reinvention) was not that lucrative after all and the Rightists – they went on a self-imposed exile to the private sector long back. Few of course slip through socialist sieves, or have a later life epiphany. They become apostates, and refuse to believe in the God that has failed everywhere except in their ivory towers, where accountability is about as high as the water level in the deserts of Marwar.

Then, go about restricting free speech and private property in the Country’s First Amendment itself. Put all kind of restrictions and requirements – “pressure spots”, and combine them with incentives of all kind. Have you complied to the T with all our taxation, excise and other laws? Do you want government ads? Wise folks know which side their bread is buttered. BJP too abused power when it comes to media. The NDA government also tried to change the ideological balance in academia, but it utterly failed in this rather entrenched sector.

Co-opting academia and media is one part of the strategy for the government; the other aspect is creating your own think tanks that would “crowd out” the incipient market of public policy advisory – and it should indeed be an industry, even if the ratio of psychological to monetary compensation is a bit higher than elsewhere. Jawaharlal Nehru created the Planning Commission despite Sardar Patel’s objections and Sonia Gandhi created the National Advisory Council. Calling these bodies unconstitutional is inaccurate and in any case beyond the point – they clearly exist, and are legal. The core issue is tax rupees used to run policy advisory bodies, university departments and media ads (and generally with an ideological/partisan bent that the Indian right is not happy with, if only out of bitterness and not principle).

Even formal Indian think-tanks are mostly run by retired bureaucrats, funded by the state, and are disproportionately focused on defence and foreign affairs. In the USA, we first had theAmerican Enterprise Institute (AEI) take on Brookings and other “progressive” brain trusts decades ago – followed by Heritage and Cato later. Right-leaning scholars made these think-tanks their own universities, and some even had students. Over the years, the number of think-tanks have boomed – and so have their “politicization”. In India, Center for Policy Research (CPR) – most prominently represented by Dr. Pratap Bhanu Mehta – and its derivative organization, PRS Legislative Research, are quasi-state, quasi-private. Government funding is there, but funding by individuals and foundations – domestic and foreign – is also there [check out this article in Open magazine]. More than that, the approach to policy discourse (especially for PRS) is to elucidate more and argue less.

Within more conventionally private institutes in India, one of the finest classical liberal think tanks doing good policy and advocacy work in the area of economics, especially education and livelihood, is the Center for Civil Society (CCS). CCS has constantly talked up liberalization for the poor, hitting the leftist narrative where it hurts i.e. their pretence of working for the poor. It has not only fought for good causes in publications and seminar rooms, but also in courts and the offices of bureaucrats.

An independent organization it helped found – Liberal Youth Forum (LYF) – is doing good work to increase accountability on campuses. I have been associated with CCS, LYF and am working with them on their school choice program. Dr. Parth Shah, the director, is one of the most genial fellows in the think-tank space. He has inspired many youth to take up the cause of common-sense economics through his frequent public policy workshops. It must be said that CCS does not self-identity as a rightist organization, and indeed on issues like civil liberties may indeed come across as “left” for some.

A bit later came up Takshashila Institution (TI), prominent on social media. Takshashila’s Pragati monthly policy journal and policy reports, benefiting from the scholarship of founders Nitin Pai and Dr. Anantha Nageswaran, have been a monthly dose of sanity in Indian discourse. It may not have matched EPW (Economic and Political Weekly) on scholarship per se, it is quite an achievement given the budget constraints that TI went through early on. Slowly, the organization evolved from a think-tank to a public policy teaching and research institute (targeting a demographic that is bit older than the one CCS targets).

I had the honour of writing for Pragati as a blogger and briefly as a fellow but I gradually started writing elsewhere because I felt that instead of mid-wifing a liberal right in India, the platform had become more non-ideological – which is perfectly legitimate too. Some rightists (especially those from the online Hindu right) have mocked some wonks, such as the one at TI, as “think tankis” or “TT babas” – which is partially the reason why I wanted to write this piece as I now start writing more regularly for CRI.

While everyone should be accountable for their opinions and actions in the public domain, and claims of ideological agnosticism and non-partisanship are correctly seen with more scepticism, to discredit an entire body of work so easily is wrong and not very different from the reductionist attacks that CRI frequently faces. Worse are unsubstantiated attacks of corruption, being sell-outs etc. Yes, some think-tanks have faced such allegations [please read this – again in Open (Read here)], but so have many other individuals and institutes in the non-profit, for-profit, media and public sectors. One cannot just generalize and speculate.

While frictions arise in any domain of human endeavour, the truth is that there is a lot that unites these relatively new Indian institutes– and I am not discussing the more area-specific ones that are concerned with Internet Policy and environment etc. While group-blogs like Kafila and publications like The Hindu, Outlook, and EPW etc are getting good readership on the Left, people at these private think-tanks, some new “pink papers” like Mint, and even old publications like Manushi know each other and are taking on the socialist-communal discourse of the UPA in their own ways.

With new technologies and greater prosperity, the virtuous cycle of political and economic liberty reinforcing each other has begun. We are witnessing the denationalization of public policy scholarship, and we must not make the mistake of letting the Congress-leaning intellectuals benefit from any excessive infighting on the Right. Vigorous public debates are necessary, but not character assassinations. I agree with my friend Rajeev Mantri when he says that strengthening the Right and working for a prosperous, strong and united country needs an approach approximating that of the Lernaean Hydra – we need multiple heads to attack and defend. None of these “heads” can have a monopoly on saying what is correct for the Right, much less for India. The temptation of saying that one individual or group has all the answers must always be resisted.

Read the story in Centre Right India