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Bridging the Gap Between Academics and Policymakers

P. K. Gautam was a Consultant at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • June 03, 2009

    Director General’s N.S. Sisodia’s opinion piece “The Case to strengthen Indian think tanks” published in The Hindu on May 24, 2009 is timely. The United Service Institution of India (USI) has existed since 1870 and the IDSA since 1965. In Delhi, over the last decade, a number of new think tanks working on defence issues have been established, like the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), The National Maritime Foundation (NMF) and the Centre for Joint Warfare Studies (CENJOWS). Besides, there are other think tanks funded by non-governmental sources such as the Delhi Policy Group, Observer Research Foundation, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, Society for Indian Ocean Studies, etc. The Indian Council of World Affairs has been in existence from the pre-partition period.

    Mr. Sisodia points out that analysts in these think tanks have hardly any access to key officials and are further constrained by absence of data. General K, Sunderji’s posthumously published book Vision 2100: A Strategy for Twenty-First Century (2003) alluded to these barriers by explaining that the line staff is too busy fire-fighting and managing routine crisis to devote time for reading and recharging of professional batteries. The tendency is then to create think tanks, though these operate with only unclassified data. When institutions generate a new idea, the ministry takes a patronising line that the products are academically interesting, and that the line staff knows better since they deal with hard facts and real life situations. Former Officiating Director of the IDSA, Commodore (Retd.) C. Uday Bhaskar, had called it the ‘Vikramaditya syndrome’.

    The problem stems from the fact that policy makers pretend to have no time to read books or articles. They want PowerPoint presentations and at best one page executive summaries, a tendency not limited to India but even prevalent in the United States. However, the fact remains that during the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis, John Kennedy was deeply influenced by historian Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August on how the pre-war crisis in Europe led to the outbreak of the First World War. Thus, the influence of academics on policy making can range from negligence to transformative. There is a division between theory and practice. Academics have a tendency to make lengthy arguments while policy makers have time for only a few pages. Also, policy makers must make decisions when they are only partially aware of factors at play, whereas academics are hesitant about reaching ‘hasty’ conclusions even when they have greater information at a later date. This was ironically best captured by Mao Zedong in the 1950s, when he purportedly responded to a question about the lessons of the French Revolution with the remark that ‘it is far too early to tell’.

    One reason for India lagging behind in recent centuries has been attributed to the failure to create new universities and an education system. There is lack of a research and development culture geared towards improving old technologies and master new ones. The Mysore rocket in 1799 was far superior to British firepower. Modern historians recount that more British casualties resulted from rocket fire than from shells. It has been pointed out that there is no work on Indian science comparable to Joseph Needham’s on China. Needham had in fact noted in the foreword of a 1986 book that science and technology failed to flourish in China because of “bureaucratic feudalism”.

    The ball is in the courts of both the think tank and policy communities. Think tanks need to get involved in theory creation, a task alas that is not even being done by Indian Universities as pointed out by Professor Amitabh Mattoo in his opinion piece “Upgrading the study of international relations” in the The Hindu on April 21, 2009. The few Indian universities dealing with defence, security, strategic studies, military science, peace research and conflict resolution need to be actively networked with International Relations and Area Studies Departments. Similarly, defence-focused think tanks need to be networked with training institutes such as War Colleges, Staff Colleges and National Defence Colleges. This need not await the inauguration of an Indian National Defence University. In any case, defence-focused think tanks and teaching and educational establishments of the defence forces are like high quality colleges and departments. One policy decision with least financial impact would be the introduction of Defence and Strategic Studies as a subject in the civil service examination.

    Finally, the policy, think tank and academic communities, and indeed society at large have to rid themselves of old baggage. Edwards Shills in The Intellectual Between Tradition and Modernity: The India Situation (1961) had noted the sterility of the Indian intellectual. Nirad Chaudhury in The Intellectuals in India (1967) had pointed out that there had been (at that time) no original thinking even by research scholars and PhD candidates, who, moreover, put an end to their research the moment a secure job came their way. Of course, we have come a long way from these tendencies, but they still exist in some form and need to be overcome. At the same time, we also need to broaden and revive our school education system with new policies including doing away with rote learning.