IN RECENT TIMES, there have been unending mentions of entities that go by the description “civil society bodies”, which are distinguished from both corporate lobbies and political parties. From the UN and sundry foreign missions to national or state governments, it has become obligatory to be seen to have consultations with representatives of civil society. At one time, philanthropic organisations or, to use their contemporary nomenclature, non-governmental organisations, were the flavour of the season. They remain so but, increasingly, these NGOs are being given tough competition by thinktanks.
Objectively speaking, the presence of multiple thinktanks testifies to the health of a democracy. There are issues and subjects that, while the preserve of the legislature and the executive, or even the judiciary, require differing assessments. They need the sustained application of mind by both domain experts and others. Thinktanks have arisen because prosperous societies, busy with doing their own thing, now employ people to do the thinking on their behalf. Of course, it is a myth to imagine that thinktanks are independent and made up of people who approach issues with a blank slate and an open mind. Thinktanks—and they are a growth industry in every vibrant democracy—are normally appendages of established institutions that range from political parties and religious bodies to international organisations. Thinktanks also serve as trial balloons to test ideas whose ownership nobody is willing to accept just as yet.
I don’t quite know where exactly to slot the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), based out of Chanakyapuri in New Delhi. It was set up a few decades ago with funds provided by American foundations, ostensibly to improve the quality of democratic discourse. Over the years, it has established a reputation and attracted interesting academics and retired civil servants. I won’t say that the CPR is politically neutral or bipartisan. Till a few years ago, I would have described it as a sober Establishment voice.
I am genuinely puzzled over whether or not to persist with this perception after reading its report “India’s Path to Power: Strategy in a World Adrift”, authored by eight individuals, some of whom occupied important positions in the erstwhile Manmohan Singh Government, and others close to the larger ecosystem of Congress. At the same time, it would be wrong to identify their views and positions with that of Congress. At best, they can loosely be described as individuals who are detached and disengaged from the Narendra Modi regime.
The assumptions on which they critique India’s foreign policy are revealing: “The electoral success of the BJP has not only meant a change in the party system and the nature of political power, but has also brought about a transformation in India’s constitutional order. There is concern that Indian democracy is moving steadily towards ethnic majoritarianism, polarisation and divisiveness.” To this is added their doubts over the abrogation of Article 370 and the changes in the Citizenship Act.
The report is critical of India’s neighbourhood policy, particularly the hostility towards Pakistan and the frostiness towards China. India, the report maintains, cannot maintain two hostile fronts: it must build bridges with either China or Pakistan. To this end, it favours India joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and to “have better bilateral relations individually with both the US and China, than they have with each other.” “Rather than competing with China on its terms— constructing physical infrastructure or undertaking mega-projects—India should do what China simply cannot: build regional links; open its markets, schools and services to the neighbours; and become a source of economic and political stability in the sub-continent.”
As for Pakistan, it recommends enhanced confidence-building measures and effective counter-terrorism measures that include exploiting contradictions within Pakistan. Linking the terror threat from Pakistan to BJP’s internal compulsions, the report goes on to say that “cross-border terrorism from Pakistan has not derailed India’s economic progress, nor has it undermined its political stability, including in Jammu & Kashmir. It is not, therefore, an over-arching threat. In any case, avoiding engagement with Pakistan has not helped manage the threat of terrorism.”
The political significance of this report is quite startling and it represents a significant departure from the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy. Had it not been for the political links of the individuals behind the report, it could have been disregarded. This would be imprudent. I believe this report is a small indication of the pressures India will be subjected to in the coming years to reverse course. The battle will have to be fought politically.