Friday, February 10, 2012

What Role for Indian Think Tanks? - By Bhaskar Menon -

Bhaskar Menon has written a very thought-provoking and historical article that is a grave warning and a call for review of all that is going on in India in the name of progress, development, modernity and security. Foreign funds are not only flooding the corporate world, but are taking on our entire thinking faculties as a proud, independent and old civilisation that was toast of the world. The sectors that were starved of funding during the earlier Congress clamping down of India, have suddenly rushed to devour whatever crumbs are thrown at them, without even a shade of reflection as to where are we heading. Bhaskar Menon deserves great honour for having the courage and insight to bring out the calamitous slide of the nation into a quagmire that will not give us any chance for a free existence for another millennium. Saner elements should band together and expose all those carpetbaggers, opportunists and self-seekers who are willing to sell the nation, for a few pieces of silver.

Ghulam Muhammed, Mumbai

undiplomatic times

An Indian view of the world

What Role for Indian Think Tanks?

By Bhaskar Menon

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

According to an Edit Page article in The New Indian Express on 6 February, a global ranking of Think Tanks has found not one of India's 292 institutions good enough to be in the global top 30. In terms of number of TTs we rank third, behind the US with 1815 and China with 425,

The writer, Amitabh Mattoo, billed as a JNU professor and Director of the Australia India Institute at the University of Melbourne, admitted that the criteria used in the ranking had been widely criticized, but nevertheless, urged remedial action by the government to avoid a “mushrooming” of American and European franchises with Indians as “junior partners.” His “guesstimate” was that some 50 percent of projects run by Indian Think Tanks were already funded from abroad.

Mattoo saw three factors as most responsible for the weakness of Indian Think Tanks: lack of adequate and steady funding, government suspicion of “truly independent” organizations, and the tendency of “idealistic founders” to become “feudal patrons.”

To deal with the situation, he urged the government to create four new TTs, each with an endowment of Rs. 1000 crore, dealing with Economics; Security; Politics/Governance; and Social Change. He recommended that they be given unconstrained “freedom to hire the best global talent to work on critical areas of policy” and work without “interference.”

Strangely for a piece titled
Unthinking Think Tanks,” Mattoo said not a word about the quality of thought that has emerged from Indian Think Tanks.

If he had looked at that issue, it might have become quickly apparent that pots of money will not help, and that the “best global talent” might make things worse. For the basic problem with Indian TTs is not lack of money or access to foreign talent; it is the hangdog "Bollywood" state of mind, reflecting the belief that our reality is second-class, that it gains meaning only from association with that of the West.

Remember NDTV's maddening crawler "India's 9/11" that disfigured its coverage of the 2009 attack on Mumbai? It was as if Indian loss of life and blood lacked authenticity without a Western reference.

That syndrome is widely evident in India, including in areas of marked success.

"Bollywood" has been followed by the equally silly (and confusing) Tollywood, Kollywood and Mollywood.

 "Silk" is "India's Marilyn Monroe."

The Jaipur Literary Festival is "India's Cannes."

Jug Suraiya is "India's Art Buchwald."

Indian cuisine, traditional fabrics and costumes are referred to as "ethnic." (This might be mere ignorance: the usage originated in the United States, where the non-ethnic default was WASP: White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant.)

If we look at more considered manifestations of thought, for instance, at the books that have come from our post-1947 political and corporate leaders, there is the same unquestioned kowtowing to the dominance of the West. Paranoia about American intentions in India does not qualify as evidence to the contrary; it is an attitude fostered by a political "Left" slavishly imitative of the British model.

The slavishness can be traced back to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's hugely influential attitudes to the West (and his fundamental differences with Mahatma Gandhi on that count). Perhaps the crux of his attitude was captured in his declaration to Gandhi during their 1928 exchange of letters: "You misjudge greatly, I think, the civilization of the West and attach too great importance to its many failings. ... I think that Western, or rather industrial civilization, is bound to conquer India."

Nehru's staggering presumption has become general today. The fact that industrial civilization has proved to be unsustainable and is in a state of terminal crisis has made hardly a dent on the views of Indian acolytes. For instance, former President Abdul Kalam's several books and numerous speeches present a vision of a "developed India" entirely in technological terms. He hardly ever mentions Gandhi's vision of how India could progress, and ignores the great problems that beset industrial development.

An ancillary to the worship of technology seems to be ignorance of Indian realities. Nandan Nilekani's "
Imagining India" is a good example of that phenomenon. Consider his explanation of why newly independent India was mistrustful of free-market economics: "Nehru saw Britain as a hard, repressive State, and the market-friendly systems it had established got tarred with the same brush." (Colonial rule, established and maintained with violence, grossly discriminatory towards Indian business, was "market-friendly"!!!) Other examples of ignorance are rife. At one point he refers to Sita's "Kush" as "the son of Vishnu."

I could give numerous other examples from a wide range of writers, but will desist for fear of boring the reader. The evidence is overwhelming that the Maya of the West has come to suffuse the disordered view of our thought leaders. We have not had since Gandhi a leader who comprehended clearly the challenges facing India.

To understand how Mattoo's hankering after the "best global talent" is rooted in post-colonial confusion, consider how ridiculous it is to have a global ranking of Think Tanks.

In the United States, Think Tanks are instruments of a variety of interest groups, making the arguments to be taken on board by legislative processes minutely overseen by political lobbyists. Chinese TTs are meant to facilitate, strengthen and on occasion hide the Communist Party’s brutal grip on power. In India, as Mattoo notes, TTs are founded by idealists who then become invested in keeping control of their creations and turn into “medieval patrons.”

Given those differences, what is the basis for comparison?

This is not to deny Mattoo's point that we stand in danger of a foreign takeover of our policy space.

But money and foreign talent are not an appropriate response to that danger.

Indian reality, more than that of any other nation, is
sui generis. We Indians are its best judges.

Perhaps the way forward would be to reorient our Think Tanks so as to generate on every major policy issue, a national discourse rooted in an understanding of our post-colonial situation. The overall aim must be to understand contemporary global realities within the frame of India’s historical experience.

The difficulty in undertaking such an effort will lie in surmounting the enormous
distortions that colonial rule introduced in our understanding of Indian history. Perhaps a National Truth Commission about the colonial period, examining what the British did to India would be a good way to begin. Once the past is clear our policy options will clarify themselves.
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