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‘A government that is lean but big on governance delivers.’ This is the belief with which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has begun his innings to put India back on the trajectory of high growth. It’s a model of governance he has already tried in Gujarat—basically, single-window clearance for an investor-friendly environment. At the Centre, he has taken the idea further by collapsing several ministries—like in the power sector—under the charge of fewer ministers, allowing both for a more holistic approach and minimal hindrance in decision-making. “The origin of this thinking is in our philosophy where society is considered autonomous and the government has only a limited role,” says Dr Vinay Sahasrabuddhe of the RSS- and BJP-supported think-tank Public Policy Research Centre (PPRC).
There are several think-tanks, civil society groups and NGOs identified with RSS and BJP that have emerged over the last decade or so. There’s the Friends of BJP or the group of technocrats under the umbrella of Citizens for Accountable Governance, which is reported to have direct access to Modi. Much before the 2014 election campaign started in earnest, these groups, along with several well-known economists and political scientists, started steering the discourse away from the BJP’s predominantly Hindutva image to a party that is more pro-development. It was a subtle change, and a process that is continuing, with many of the think-tanks and right-of-centre-leaning institutions rethinking their roles in the current dispensation.
Some take pains to emphasise that they are not funded by the party or are not an extension of it but rooted in the ideology of seeing India develop into a superpower over the next two decades while promoting all-round development within the country. “Narendra Modi is one of those few politicians who have stressed the need for policy-driven governance,” says Sahasrabuddhe. “Unfortunately in India, public policy as a discipline of knowledge has remained rather neglected. This is partly because policy regimes in India so far have remained lopsided and partly because, thanks to the compulsions of populism, the tendency had been to sacrifice policy at the altar of electoral politics.”
Piyush Goyal, BJP national treasurer and co-founder of the Friends of BJP, points out that the group, while promoting a positive image of the party, has “also been the first to pull it up” if they found it erring. Speaking to Outlook ahead of being sworn in as the MoS (independent charge) for coal, power and new and renewable energy, Goyal said, “The group will continue to attract new talent to the political mainstream. The forum is open to new talent and thinkers. We are very inclusive in our approach.”
“Friends of BJP will continue to attract new talent and thinkers to the political mainstream. We are very inclusive in our approach.”
Gearing up to meet the new challenges and find greater relevance and acceptance, the think-tanks would rather not be identified with a party though their roots may have sprung from it, but with the ideology of nationalism. Among the many that fit the bill is the Ajit Doval-headed Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), an affiliate of the Vivekananda Rock Memorial, Kanyakumari; the Kanchan Gupta-headed Niti Central; and the Dr J.K. Bajaj-headed Centre for Policy Studies.
K.G. Suresh, editor of VIF, states that being a strategic think-tank that works in the space of national security, diplomacy, governance, the vision of a strong and prosperous India, “we have got tagged with the BJP and RSS, but our studies are open”. VIF, he adds, does not get any funding from them. “Of course, at the top level, they do take input from us on diplomacy and international relations. Even Congress leaders attend our seminars.”
Filling the space for right-of-centre ideas, Niti Central came up in 2013 with a view to provide Modi better coverage, who till then had been getting negative press. “Our endeavour was essentially to push the envelope. It succeeded. Till Modi was declared the official PM candidate, we were the sole platform covering him,” says Gupta, who recalls their website getting as high as one million hits a day during elections. With the basic objective as a member of the election management having been achieved, Gupta admits to now exploring what to do next. In defence of his news website, Gupta states that “it is not a BJP platform as all people who work for me are professionals who have consciously positioned themselves as right of centre”.
Dr Anirban Ganguly, director of the Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, which operates out of the BJP headquarter in Delhi, sees considerable space for policy research in the present regime given the Modi team’s openness to new ideas that address age-old concerns on development of India as a whole.
Describing his organisation as an advocacy platform for experts and practitioners “to come together to evolve a certain position”, Ganguly says, “We have regular public programmes, not necessarily for the BJP. We try and provide various inputs and positions. It is up to the party to pick and choose.” As projected during the election, he elaborates, their call is ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’. A look at their calendar of discussions and debates since June last year gives interesting insights into BJP thinking—from national security, Article 370, to urbanisation, foreign policy challenges, etc.
BJP-affiliated civil society stalwarts are of the view that, unlike other parties, the BJP is open to “intellectual discourse”, which they hope will translate into better decision-making in the larger national interest. They argue that it’s only through academic and intellectual inputs that the government can hope to deliver better governance, not via populism.
“If you look for ideas and suggestions outside government and politics, then think-tanks have a definite role to play.”
Leading through research and project implementation in 500 villages in Chitrakoot on the Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh border is the Deendayal Research Institute, with its certified rural development projects—ranging from irrigation programmes, validation of traditional Indian systems of medicine, educational practices, innovation and promotion of self-reliance. Modi is reported to have visited “the model village” project and has replicated its cow protection programme in Gujarat.
Not to be overlooked is the large space occupied by RSS-affiliated bodies like the Rashtriya Seva Bharati, which has over 440 affiliated NGOs working with it across the country, implementing as many as 1,38,550 projects and programmes at the last count. According to K.L. Mallya, treasurer of the organisation, none of the affiliated NGOs is funded by the RSS or BJP but their activities are streamlined and regularly audited, and regular interactions held at the state and national level to share best practices.
Rejecting fears of non-RSS and BJP civil society organisations being squeezed out, Amitabh Behar, executive director of the National Foundation for India (NFI), says, “NGOs which are ideology-driven and which are inherently opposed to the saffron culture may get sidelined, but others may not be affected.”
Given that the government has taken a very ambitious pledge of development, Sudheendra Kulkarni, aide to former prime minister A.B. Vajpayee, hopes that the Modi team will look for ideas from different sources outside government and politics. “If you look for ideas and suggestions outside, then think-tanks certainly have a role to play, as India is a diverse society where no single ideology or ideological stream has a monopoly of ideas,” he says.
Kulkarni, however, cautions that if the government wants results, it should not carry out consultations for mere formality but tap the best minds at universities, NGOs and think-tanks and other social organisations to bring about change “and not limit itself to getting ideas or advice from only a particular kind of organisation”. Drawing parallels with Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council, Kulkarni feels it failed in its task by not readily welcoming ideas and suggestions from the full spectrum of institutions.
It would be interesting to watch how the Modi team negotiates its way in the socio-economic space in the days ahead. What do policy wonks advise next?