Strobe Talbott, journalist, author of books and former deputy secretary of state, came to India last month having accomplished, as he said, “a dream going back 11 years.” That was when he joined as president of the Brookings Institute and concluded that after being around 85 years the venerable institution, probably the largest policy institute – think tank as the popular vernacular would have it – in the world.

So Brookings got the money for Doha, Beijing and son. He told John Thornton, the sponsor of the Beijing office, that Talbott would ensure there was an India office “as good as the China one” before he left the institute.

Though largely remembered in Indian official circles for his steadfast opposition to the Indo-US nuclear deal, Talbott has a long attachment to India. “I lived here in Delhi in Golf Links in 1968, writing my first love letters to my late wife,” he remembers. He visited the country repeatedly and, after the Pokhran II nuclear tests, rebuilt a new Indo-US relationship with the then foreign minister of India, Jaswant Singh.

As in most things, the problem for Brookings India was to figure out the funding. At least once the headache of government clearance was resolved. Talbott made it more complex by insisting that there be a multiplicity of funders to “ensure our independence.” Eventually the model that arose was a commitment by Indian funders. “At present we are close to 25 funders, each of them having giving Rs 20 million,” he said. These are largely the biggest names in India Inc.

While this sounds impressive, the truth is that Rs. 20 million is about $400,000 and a relatively small corpus. Which, presumably, is why Brookings India is starting with a small group of four to five full-time staff? The institute will also have an advisory council to help it set its agenda and so on. This is relatively modest – at least one other American think tank is aiming for a $ 10 million endowment before opening shop here.

But Talbott is determined that Brookings India be an institute funded by Indians, setting policy for Indians. “We want to avoid what other US organisations have done – come in like gangbusters,” he said.

And why does India need a think tank? “Wars are too important to leave to generals. Governance is too important to leave to bureaucrats and politicians. This is not to disparage them, but they need help,” says Talbott. “The Indian government, like all governments, needs an infusion of fact-based policy ideas.”

India actually has a large number of think tanks; over 250 said an annual global survey of think tanks. The Centre of Civil Society, economist Parth Shah’s excellent free market policy group, was declared the best of India’s think tank galaxy. But the truth is that most of these Indian think tanks produce indifferent work or specialise in very narrow areas, normally development-oriented economics or some social issue. Worse, their policy influence is quiet limited, if not close to zero.

That Brookings has lined up so much money in such a short time indicates that Indian corporate firms accept the need for some real serious non-governmental analysis of how the country runs. That they preferred to give it to Brookings also underlines their own distrust with the various Indian brand names in this field. Brookings at least is an established name with presumably strong internal controls and standards. Next step: get the governments to listen.

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