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Can India’s Think Tanks Be Truly Effective?

If there is one big challenge that all think tanks face it is measuring their effectiveness writes Dhruva Jaishankar

I have worked for much of the past decade in, or with, think tanks in both the US and in India, and am regularly confronted with misperceptions and misapprehensions about the sector. What is the purpose of think tanks? Who sets their agenda? What do they do on a day-to-day basis? The answers are, unfortunately, not so simple.

These questions are particularly important today because significant changes are afoot among New Delhi’s think tanks. The opening of Carnegie India means that one of the world’s leading think tanks on international affairs will now have a permanent presence in India. Carnegie joins its Washington neighbour The Brookings Institution, in many ways the archetypal think tank, which established Brookings India in New Delhi a few years ago, and recently moved its offices in the diplomatic enclave of Chanakyapuri.

Meanwhile, in March, the Observer Research Foundation concluded the Raisina Dialogue, giving India a major international policy conference. And the appointments last year of former Ambassador to Nepal and Afghanistan Jayant Prasad as Director General of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and Nalin Surie, ex-envoy to China and the UK, as head of the Indian Council on World Affairs (ICWA) means that accomplished diplomats now head the two premier government-funded foreign policy think tanks. Taken together, these developments offer a good opportunity to revisit think tanks’ role in the Indian policy establishment.

How think tanks work

The primary purpose of think tanks is to generate ideas and debate on matters of public policy. In that sense, they are both research institutions and conveners, bringing together different viewpoints and facilitating an exchange of views. In terms of research, what think tanks do is not dissimilar to business consulting, intelligence analysis, investigative journalism, or academic research in the social sciences. The difference, however, is that the research produced by think tanks is meant to inform and influence public policy. Their target audience is therefore either policymakers in government or the broader public.

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