External Affairs

Brookings Demystified: Overlapping Networks and the Business of Influencing Policy

Avoiding the blurring of lines between independent research and advocacy can sometimes be challenging.

A Brookings India roundtable on coal washing. Credit: Twitter/Brookings India

A Brookings India roundtable on coal washing. Credit: Twitter/Brookings India

In 2016, India had 280 think tanks, the fourth largest after the US, China and the UK. The number of Indian think tanks more than doubled in the last ten years.

Think tanks conduct research on government policy, organise conferences and produce publications. In doing so, they engage with the government, private sector, academia and media. They try to inform and influence government policy and their sources of funding are from the government and the private sector. The Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis and Indian Council of World Affairs are examples of government- funded institutions. Prominent private sector funded think tanks include the Observer Research Foundation, which receives funds from Reliance Industries and other donors, and Gateway House, which is funded by the Mahindra group and other sources.

Most declare themselves to be independent and not subject to influence from their funders. Such claims merit investigation, especially since these institutions try to exert influence on the government. When think tanks with origins in one country open offices in other countries, it is worth asking why.

In this two-part series, Urvashi Sarkar looks at the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace and Brookings Institution, two top-ranked and influential American think tanks that have set up India offices, and examines their links to Indian industry and government. You can read the article on Carnegie India here.

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In May 2017, a scholar from Brookings India, Shamika Ravi, published an article titled ‘From Labour Pains to Labour Gains’ on the personal website of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, narendramodi.in. In it, she argued that routing wages away from cash payments and towards bank accounts, electronic and mobile payments will help create a culture of formal employment.

Given the emphasis Brookings places on the independent and non-partisan nature of its research – it insists  that the interests of political parties, governments, donors and NGOs do not affect its research – did the placement of the oped on the personal website of the prime minister suggest a certain blurring of lines? Not so, says Harsha Vardhana Singh, executive director of Brookings India. “Our scholars can write for any public or research platform, whether narendramodi.in, NITI Aayog, academic journals, NDTV, the Indian Express or The Wire. We contribute to all,” he told this writer in an emailed response.

“The PM requested the author Shamika Ravi to contribute something for Labour Day (May 1). The article was disseminated from the official Twitter handle of the PMO. The Narendra Modi website often asks experts to give their opinions. We are neither for nor against this or any other government. For example, Shamika Ravi has bemoaned the government’s lack of priority in relation to the health issue. When policy makers request scholars to write, should one refuse because one of the conclusions is similar to the view of the person making the request. To presume conflict of interest is non-objective and inappropriate.”

While the assumption that the prime minister’s personal website can be placed in the same category as NDTV, the Indian Express or The Wire is debatable, the fact that he should commission a Brookings researcher to write an article for his website raises questions about the extent of his proximity to, and influence on, the think tank. Indeed, given his government’s lack of receptiveness to ideas and suggestions that run counter to official policy, it reflects, at the very least, Modi’s confidence in Brookings delivering an article that is in sync with official priorities.

Though think tanks advertise their independence – in the same way that news organisations tend to do – the two cannot be compared, says Manoj Joshi, a journalist and former editor who now works as a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in Delhi. Unlike journalists or media organisations, “think tanks play an advocacy role and are known for certain positions they take. They may strongly support Modi or the government’s view on an issue. Some think tanks are openly partisan, run by political parties while others are non-partisan or bipartisan,” he wrote over email.

Ravi, who has also published in The Wire, says she and Brookings are firmly non-partisan and that it would be unfair for anyone to see partisanship in her decision to write for Modi. In an emailed response to this writer, she said that she would be “more than happy” to write for the websites of opposition leaders like Rahul Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee or Prakash Karat, provided she was asked. “In fact I have presented my research on women in politics to Sheila Dikshit and she requested me to give a seminar on the topic at the Congress office,” Ravi added. “I am constantly in touch with Rajeev Gowda (MP and research head of the Congress) on several matters of mutual interest.”

According to her, publishing on a particular site does not have any bearing on her academic independence. “Independence gives me the academic freedom to voice my research to anyone and everyone interested. My research findings don’t change based on the readers/listeners or platform/publication. I am equally happy publishing in EPW and Dialogue. They both have readers that might benefit from exposure to development economics research,” Ravi told this writer.

Late last year, Ravi was appointed to the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council as a part-time member. Another member, Surjit Bhalla, has also been a Brookings fellow.

A push for digital transactions

Ravi’s first article on demonetisation, written two days after the November 8, 2016 decision, called it a ‘net positive move’. “In the long run,”, she wrote, “this is a significant positive shock to the Indian economy.”

However, the author who wrote far more widely on demonetisation was Bhaskar Chakravorti – a non-resident senior fellow at Brookings India, who has largely been critical of the move despite the fact that he is a senior advisor for digital inclusion to Mastercard and the institute he directs at Tufts University, where he is a professor, receives funding from Mastercard, Microsoft and Gates Foundation.

Mastercard’s core business is converting people from cash to electronic payments and is also a Brookings funder but Chakravorti says he had no problem taking on demonetisation. “It is no secret that Mastercard’s business is enhanced as people move away from cash,” he said in an email to this writer. “Despite my close association with Mastercard, I have argued against demonetisation.” Chakravorti said he favoured the use of digital payments but believes demonetisation was the wrong instrument for it.

Though the writings of Ravi and Chakravorti make it clear that Brookings did not take an institutional view on demonetisation, it is evident that the think tank is bullish on the need for less cash and greater digital transactions – a position it shares with some of its funders.

Brookings Institution, the parent institute of Brookings India has also received funding from Mastercard in the past. The Financial and Digital Inclusion Project (FDIP) of Brookings Institution, which measures financial inclusion in different countries is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – a well-known advocate of digital payments. The Gates Foundation is itself a funder of the Alliance for Financial Inclusion and the Better Than Cash Alliance, and a member of Cashless Catalyst. Each of these organisations is a major proponent of digitising financial services.

India’s Aadhar programme, viewed positively by the Gates Foundation and Better than Cash Alliance also finds positive mention in the Brookings FDIP project:

“…the JAM framework (Jan Dhan, Yojana, Aadhar and mobile numbers) will allow providers to offer innovative financial services to underserved populations. Aadhar identification numbers and the borrower’s credit history could be linked to Aadhaar Enabled Payment Systems for greater transparency and reduce information problems in the credit market.”

These examples show the overlapping networks and connections between Brookings, an independent think tank, and its funders, some of whom are digital financial companies and organisations favouring digitisation.

Besides the Gates Foundation, VISA and Citi fund both Brookings as well the Better than Cash Alliance. The 2015 Brookings Blum Roundtable on Global Poverty, on the theme ‘Disrupting development with digital technologies’, had participants from organisations like USAID, the Gates Foundation and  Mastercard, all of which have funded Brookings.

Without a doubt, such organisations fund a diverse range of initiatives. Think tanks too work on a variety of projects, and it isn’t easy to pinpoint the source of funding for individual projects, let alone establish a clear linkage between funding and advocacy on an issue. Yet the points of convergence between these organisations are hard to miss. In giving funds or attending each others’ conferences, there appears to be an alignment of interests and viewpoints, as well as a shared vision on how to solve the problems of the world.

History of the Brookings Institution

Though Brookings India has been set up as a separate Indian entity and domestic regulations on foreign contributions restrict it from receiving foreign money, the ideas informing its work are similar to its parent institute, the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The Brookings Institution was established in 1916 as a private organisation devoted to the study of American policy issues, with its roots in the progressive movement.

According to an outline of the institute’s history, Brookings experts helped frame the first US Bureau of the Budget, helped the US government mobilise during the Second World War and assisted in shaping the United Nations and the Marshall Plan. It recently marked its centenary.

Brookings was ranked as the world’s top think tank in 2016 by the Global Go To Think Tank Index, based on leadership, quality of research, reputation with policymakers and access to key institutions.

In 2016, the New York Times published a series of articles examining the funding of think tanks which showed that Brookings and other think tanks at times pushed agendas important to corporate donors  and received funding from foreign governments to lobby for their interests.

Despite former Brookings president Strobe Talbott’s rebuttal, questions remain about how the think tank uses its funds.

In India, Brookings’ funding is primarily from corporate donors. Called the Founder’s Circle, the group includes Aditya Birla, Adi Godrej, Fortis Healthcare, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Rahul Bajaj, Nita and Mukesh Ambani, Sudha and Kris Gopalakrishnan, the Tata Group and others. The funders also advise Brookings on its research agenda.

In an interview to The Wire, Brookings India executive director Harsha Vardhana Singh said that each donor pays Rs 2 crore over four years, which serves as a corpus for the think tank.

“Corporates fund us but scholars decide their own research priorities. Our scholars attend conferences where policy makers and business people could be present. Ideas are generated in meetings with government officials. Policy makers request them to join expert groups or write papers. Direct interaction between the funding agency and the researcher is not permitted. If it is indirect, we invite not just the funding entity but others with competing views,” he said.

The benefits offered to donors by Brookings include invitations to private events, conference calls on pressing policy topics and private issue briefings from scholars. Depending on the scale of contributions, donors receive ‘customised programmes of benefit’ and participate in international study tours. The names of the board members of Brookings India are not displayed on its website and Singh refused to provide any details.

In the world of philanthropy, it is not uncommon for donors to provide funding without any expectation of returns in the form of research that favours their own agendas or business interests. The Economic and Political Weekly, for example, receives funding from the Nilekani family foundation but regularly carries articles that are sharply critical of Aadhaar, the project launched by Nandan Nilekani.

But for the corporate sector, think tanks afford visibility and the ability to broadly influence policies in particular directions. “By investing in think tanks, Indian corporates get an opportunity to influence the direction of policy,” says Mohan Guruswamy, visiting professor at the Administrative Staff College Hyderabad and an advisor to the finance ministry in the previous NDA government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. “Existing bodies like FICCI and CII do the same, but they obviously want more avenues. Additionally, investing in American think tanks and universities helps them buy prestige in Washington.”

John Kerry and Penny Pritzer with Brookings India chairman Vikram Mehta. Credit: Twitter/Brookings India

John Kerry and Penny Pritzer with Brookings India chairman Vikram Mehta. Credit: Twitter/Brookings India

What India means for Brookings

Why did Brookings establish its third overseas affiliate in India, adding to centres in Qatar and Beijing? The stated reason was India’s growing importance as the world’s largest democracy and a rapidly developing economy, and to raise the profile of India in Washington.

Its establishment was also an outcome of the interest taken by the think tank’s former president, Talbott. As deputy secretary of state in the Bill Clinton administration, he was chief negotiator for the US following India’s nuclear tests in 1998.

Despite the centre being an offshoot and affiliate of the Brookings Institution, Harsha Vardhana Singh is averse to the perception that Brookings India is a think tank with American links.

“Brookings India is entirely Indian and is a company registered in India. Indians are involved in directing, staffing and funding it. There is nothing American about it. Brookings DC might want to use our experts, or we might want to use theirs. But they can only advise us on governance. They cannot tell us what to research,” he said.

Brookings 2.0‘, a document outlining the future vision of the institution, however, points in another direction. It elaborates on the functions of the India centre and other centres in Beijing and Qatar.

“Brookings is well positioned to be part of the solution to America’s problems precisely because we know our city well. Since America’s difficulties are troublesome for the world and American leadership abroad is essential, our identity as a Washington-based think tank is an asset as we ply our trade globally by virtue of our overseas centers and via cyberspace, airwaves, and satellites”.

By its own admission then, the presence of Brookings in India is a manifestation of American soft power and a symbol of a growing closeness between the two countries, which began after the end of the Cold War.

Think tanks under Modi government

Brookings India chief executive Harsha Vardhan Singh. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Brookings India chief executive Harsha Vardhan Singh. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Whatever their role in earlier years, think tanks under the Modi government seem to be getting more attention. The recent revamping of Ministry of External Affairs’ Policy Planning and Research Division under foreign secretary S. Jaishankar included a redefined mandate of proactive outreach to Indian think tanks for ideas and perspectives on foreign policy formulation and advising think tanks on useful research. It includes organising major foreign policy conferences – the ‘Raisina Dialogue’ and ‘Gateway of India Dialogue’, in partnership with think tanks such as ORF and Gateway House.

During his visit to the US in 2016, Modi also met with heads of significant think tanks like the Council on Foreign Relations, Centre for American Progress, Carnegie Endowment, Atlantic Council, Hudson Institute and Brookings Institution. The aim was to understand how these American think tanks view global trends in the coming years and explore areas of collaboration between India and the US.

Interestingly, a delegation from the Brookings Institution, including its trustees and Talbott, visited India in 2014 during a study tour. The visit came in the backdrop of Modi’s election, aiming to “witness India’s transition, up close” and discuss economic, social and foreign policy priorities shaping India’s future. The delegation met with BJP and Congress leaders, and with private sector actors.

A reference to Brookings appears in an unsigned article on Modi’s website heaping extravagant praise on the prime minister’s exploits and reputation abroad. “Brookings Institution, one of USA’s leading think tanks has lauded Gujarat’s decade of development,” the piece states, quoting from a 2012 Brookings blogpost by William J. Antholis titled ‘India’s Most Admired and Most Feared Politician: Narendra Modi’.

From government to think tank

Like influential think tanks in the US, the Brookings Institution serves as a hub; the movement of individuals between it and the government is common.

Reserve Bank of India governor Urjit Patel and NITI Aayog vice-chairperson Arvind Panagariya (who recently resigned) were both non-resident fellows at Brooking, DC. Subir Gokarn, former director of Brookings India, was deputy RBI governor before he joined Brookings. Ex-national security advisor Shiv Shankar Menon is a fellow at Brookings DC. Dhruv Jaishankar, the son of serving foreign secretary Jaishankar, is a fellow at Brookings India.

Dhruva Jaishankar organises events at Brookings, often with prominent speakers, and writes extensively on Indian foreign policy but he rejects the suggestion that there is any conflict of interest involved in his asspciation with Brookings. “Any potential conflicts of interest are easily navigated by preserving a firewall between my professional and personal lives. For example, Brookings India is the only major Indian foreign policy think tank at which the current foreign secretary has not made a speech or appearance. Similarly, I do not write analyses of his public presentations, nor do I quote him in my writings.”

Asked why his articles in the media, including in The Wire, do not mention his relationship to the foreign secretary he said that “while my relationship to my father is no secret, I do not mention it in my writing, or in any other professional context, for three reasons. One, my career preceded my father’s appointment as foreign secretary by almost ten years, and will continue well after his retirement, and as such is independent. I have been contributing commentary and analysis to the Indian media since 2006. In that time, I have written about Indian foreign policy and international relations for [a number of publications]. Two, my mentioning my relationship to my father in an article might imply that I was leveraging my personal relationships for professional gain, and would detract from my analysis being treated on it its own merits. Three, if I were to highlight my relationship to my father, readers might misinterpret my conclusions as reflective of the Indian government’s views on a particular matter, when in fact they are independent and sometimes run contrary to existing policy.”

Dhruva Jaishankar added that “a careful reading of my publications and media commentary over the years would show that I was sometimes complimentary of the Indian government well before my father assumed the post of foreign secretary, and have sometimes been critical of the Indian government after that point, including of its handling of relations with Nepal, Pakistan, and Myanmar, and of inter-ministerial coordination, overseas project implementation, and capacity-building for defence diplomacy.”

The revolving-door phenomenon, where individuals work for think tanks, join the government and return to think tanks, is less usual in India than in the US.

In an interview before he became a minister in the Modi government, Hardeep Singh Puri, who served as India’s permanent representative to the UN in New York, told this writer, “The eminence of certain think tanks in the United States is partly because of the revolving door phenomenon. For example, people in very senior positions in the US government have joined Brookings DC.”

“Think tanks have advantages if they have academic-oriented people not burdened by the everyday pressures of government officials. The real danger is if think tanks lobby for commercial interest or partisan interests. Do they receive selfless arms-length funding, or are there other expectations from funders?” he asked.

According to Puri, the government of India does not outsource substantive work to think tanks with foreign affiliations, but uses them mainly for events.

However, Brookings India’s annual reports from the last two years show not just events organised, but also talk of their scholars being invited by decision makers to give “private briefings at the highest levels” and participate in formulating or giving comments on draft policies.

Brooking’s work on India’s coal sector is an example of the think tank’s work with the government. In April 2016, it conducted a secretary-level roundtable that brought together the secretaries for power, coal, new and renewable energy, government bodies, distribution companies and the banking sector. It also published a study on the future of coal in India supported by Tata Steel Ltd.

The latest example of movement between government and Brookings is Shamika Ravi’s appointment on the PM’s Economic Advisory Council. “[The appointment] is of a part-time member. So it is not a salaried job,” she said. “This is the case for several others on the PMEAC. This means that we retain our full time job (at Brookings India, NIPFP, IGIDR etc.) while providing advice/counsel on economic matters to the PM.”

Asked if it would be a burden to balance the wearing of two hats – that of an independent academic with Brookings and of an advisor to the prime minister – Ravi said she did not anticipate any challenges. “It is my professional service as a researcher. As an academic, I have always worn several hats – of a teacher, researcher, adviser etc. across institutions. I am deeply honoured by this appointment. I see this as an opportunity to bring rigorous research insights into policy making in our country.”

Urvashi Sarkar is an independent journalist.Note: In an earlier version, three paragraphs on Dhruva Jaishankar were inadvertently omitted.