Friday, July 13, 2012

Think tanking: What the Hindu right can do.

The article in the link (click) is one I found during regular Twitter forays on how Indian think tankers can learn from the development of the Prussian General Staff. Below is a paraphrase of what the authors are saying.

The authors of the article justify learning from the Prussians on two counts:
1) From the early stage of both the entities, both Prussia and India were and have been surrounded by existentialist threats from belligerent nations and they have to survive with a combination of military power and diplomacy. 
2) Both Prussia and India had and have a task to fulfill of developing an idea of nationhood among diverse peoples.
The article then goes on to describe the problems facing the ideas industry in India. According to a report they cite, India comes 3rd in terms of number of think tanks, but none of India's think tanks feature in the top 75 of the world and only one features in the top 5 think tanks of Asia, coming in at the 3rd place.

The major issue that Indian think tanks face is the lack of funding (of which there are 3 types: academic, contract and advocacy). India has a few contract funded think tanks (supported by government or private sector). This is due to the fact that our think tanks are centered on political and military affairs in which few in the corporate sector would have any interest. Most of the funding for our think tanks comes from foreign sources, which has the danger of getting a foreign agenda implanted in Indian policy recommendations. If however Indian think tanks go exclusivist, they will lose the foreign funding. Thus, we have a catch-22 situation.
The other issue is a questionable degree of autonomy. Each of India's armed forces has its own think tank. Although these are fed by civilian scholars, it's autonomy has been questioned just on the basis of its affiliation. The last issue is the lack of data and Indian think tanks have found it difficult to access relevant data. This allows career bureaucrats to remain central to policy-making and gives a cover in case of mistakes. Even if Indian think tanks are consulted, they would fail to provide sound advice in the absence of good data.
What to learn from the Prussian general staff:
The article then goes on to outline what Indians can learn from the Prussian general staff. A major strength of them was to recruit a small amount of brilliant analytical cadre which would be rotated among think tanks to give them the widest possible audience. This allowed the Prussian general staff to be the envy of world's armies for the next two centuries.
The general staff was divided into two parts, the great general staff and the field forces general staff. The great general staff at Berlin had the best and brightest of officers in the army vetted through a rigorous talent selection process and were trained to have a spartan work ethic and a secretive life. Retirees of this were sent to the field forces general staff to spread their ideas and implement them. The number of people employed at the general staff was at the most a little over a 100 people.
To summarize, the things to learn from them are as follows:
1) Small is better. - It always employed very few people for instance during the Franco Prussian war of 1870-71, the Prussian army had 16 officers and 119 people of other ranks.
2) To innovate, you need to be multidisciplinary - the general staff also tasked itself into learning about other fields, like civilian administration, diplomatic procedures, etc.
3) Think tanks work better away from public glare.

4) To spread ideas, employ a revolving door recruiting policy rather than webpage hits and media blurbs.
5) Release policy reports to an elite group of policy makers and not to just anybody. (We might have some issues with this, in monarchial Prussia it was pulled off easily.)

Consider that the project of having a central headquarters and regional quarters for the think tank is taken up by a prominent hindu volunteering organization and some of the above mentioned management issues, talent searches, etc. are implemented. The question that arises then and which is relevant to our blog is: "Can any hindu philosophy be the foundation of a think tank?" As the author of the article suggests, one of the ways think tanks can be funded is through contract funding. This is done by and large through corporate sources. For this to be necessary, the author suggests that think tanks need to focus on geo-economics. This field is defined as:

"Broadly, geoeconomics (sometimes geoeconomics) is the study of the spatial, temporal and political aspects of economies and resources." (ref)

However for a think tank affiliated to the Hindu right, there is an all new field called Hindu economics that hasn't been touched yet by many. The linked article provided mentions that this should be based on the concept of Trivarg (three reasons for action ) namely - Dharma, Artha and Kaama while also looking for inappropriate grounds for action such as anger, greed, delusion, pride, revenge, jealousy and hatred. Hindu economics is suggested to be normative whereas 20th century economics has been defined to be descriptive. What this does is that it releases the pressure from economics to study the individual as an entity that behaves in a programmed fashion. On the bright side, it promises to observe human relations and actions in a holistic perspective, aiming perhaps to look beyond the profit motive for human action that current economics endorses and improve the person and the society qualitatively.  On the down side, it suffers from some hair splitting against capitalist systems while not realizing that they are in fact very close to each other (both agree to private ownership of factors of production and free markets). The theory also sounds of as having a tendency to turn gradually into a full blown welfare state, of which we have seen some downsides before. But as a whole, it is a pretty nascent field and changes in basic doctrines and definitions will keep happening if think tanks take it up and hammer out issues.

The one thing that Hindu economics would desperately need is an elementary reason for innovation. Previous iterations of this have not fared well in this regard and appear to promote more of a status quo society. This is clearly out of place in our times where most countries value not labor, but innovations as an engine for the economy. If Hindu economics has to be funded by corporates, it must provide them with innovations in return. The Trivarg mentioned above can very well be elementary reasons for innovation in themselves. Self defense is also something that must be included as an inspiration for innovation. Jugaad as a concept might also be helpful, although it cannot fare as well as a thorough R&D project. In addition, creative destruction is an idea that Hindu economics should not consider sacrilege, it after all is not very different from the idea of Shiva (the secret might lie in being prepared for the redistribution of labour after creative destruction has been put into action). 

Once Hindu economics is perfected at home, it will be very interesting to see its implementation in geoeconomics. Giving locals of other places a good value for their money and respecting their local heritage is something that anybody can do. But transforming their lives through a unique economic model is something that should be the holy grail of Hindu economics and of Indian think tankers.


cbcnn_Pilid said...

The label "Hindu economics" is an attractive one but as I mentioned earlier, it needs to be endowed with some real content to be taken seriously. If we understand the term to mean the sort of economic arrangements that permeated Hindu civilization historically, then we are not talking of a typical Western-style think tank really but something quite different. As we know, think tanks organized along the Western model set out some broad principles and vision of the type of society they wish to realize and then try to solve/manage problems through policy proposals evolved in tune with them. In our case, I don't know if there are any particular principles as such that we can call "Hindu" - after all, we are talking of several thousand year old civilization with a large number of thinkers, advisors, rulers and others who had very different ideas and concepts with enough conflict and contradictions amongst them. While I claim no expertise in ancient texts, I find that they are generally filled with too many particulars but does not contain enough discussion of the underlying principles which led to those specifics being worked out to resolve the conflicting motivations undergirding them. Perhaps we can today infer those principles through scrutiny and deliberation (at least of our favorite historical figures) and get modern day institutions to apply them. But these would have to be not just comprehensive and timeless with real world consequences but also carry some form of uniqueness distinguishing them from Western schools of thought. Maybe that is a possibility but I frankly consider it as a tall order.

A more realistic alternative may be to have think tanks that are dedicated to policy development consistent with and most closely approximating the sort of developmental models Indian rulers have adopted in the past. These would not hew to the ideological faultlines appearing in the West but rather rely on the experience of Indian society as embodied in its historical development and traditions. The advantage would be that it would open a stream of thought hithertofore insufficiently explored but also one that can claim to be practical and durable given that it carries the benefit of hindsight. There are significant impediments to that too: firstly, we may not want to recognize all of our past preferring to repudiate its more unsavory aspects. Secondly, there may have been different types of governance in different epochs so that no particular model could claim to have been uniquely practised through the centuries. Thirdly, if we accept some of our past and reject the rest, the challenge remains of developing a vision for the future that is firmly anchored to the bedrock of our civilization. Without such a vision, of course, the entire enterprise will be largely directionless and futile - no better than where the Sangh Parivar has landed today. But thinking along these lines can jumpstart a conversation that could lead to something concrete. Moreover, if the basic approach is sufficiently clear, different perspectives can be welcomed and surely accomodated even if the visions they hold are diametrically opposed - that would be a testament to its robustness. If successfully done, it could revolutionize our politics or at least give it some heft.

Karmasura said...

Thanks for the comment and that is much to chew on. My idea is not to tie Hindu economics with what existed in the past, but if some of the founding ideas need to be such that align with the values that the Hindu civilization holds dear. This I will try to make apparent in my capacity in later posts. Certainly if in the past, some Hindu guru held some great economic truisms, they should be incorporated but that is not the sole thrust behind my idea. I totally agree that these have to be drastically different and have some value addition over Western systems, but this will require much work than I can do on the blog.

Dirt Digger said...

There are 2 concepts you hit on here. One is the concept of a right-wing think tank, of which there are many. Though the effectiveness could be called into question. Second is the creation of a Hindu-economics based think tank. Here I agree with Pilid that the concept of the Hindu economics has to be detailed. You really need to create a tome (or tomes) like 'Wealth of Nations' detailing the principles before the think tank can be used to discuss and propagate the concepts.
Maybe I'm not getting the point or oversimplifying it.

Karmasura said...

DD, if a tome is needed, one exists such as the book Hindu Economics by M.G. Bokare. From reading the introduction, I feel it has some good and bad ideas and we need to develop on it. The next post will have some more details on this scheme, after which this topic will be left until I get more inspiration to iron out issues.