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Published by City University of London. 9 July 2021
For several years, the United States has emerged as India’s most important bilateral partner. There are several components to this relationship not limited to trade, defense deals, and immigration.
In 2019, U.S.-India bilateral trade in goods and services reached $149 billion. Indian American diaspora in the United States number around four million (United States Department of State, 2021). Joint military exercises, defense cooperation and defense trade are a crucial peg of relationship. The two countries also became part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or the Quad), along with Japan and Australia as a flagship initiative in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy (Kronstadt et al., 2021). These are just a few of the many areas in which India and the United States cooperate.
Since the United States exercises control over both the global financial system and international political system, many countries including India feel that they must actively lobby the United States and be persuasive of their interests. To name a few such interests, India has concerns about restrictions to the H1-B visa programme which makes it possible for thousands of Indian IT workers to work in the USA (Iyengar, 2021). There are also concerns about the US government seeking lesser and lesser tariffs and duties on its exports to India (Miglani et al., 2018), issues with US foreign policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan and many other areas where India seeks concessions and better bargains.
Also, there are costs to getting on the wrong side the US, as many countries such as Iran have discovered. India too underwent US economic sanctions after the 1999 nuclear tests (Wadhwa, 1998).
Lobbying, diplomacy and advocacy mechanisms
India deploys a range of instruments which work to build support for Indian government’s viewpoint in the United States. These include formal Embassy presence in Washington DC, Indian consulates across various cities, high level diplomatic exchanges and the more informal Track-II exchanges. The Indian government also spends hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in employing lobbying firms, who in turn lobby US lawmakers and opinion makers. The relationship is additionally bolstered by think tanks, universities, and a range of interest groups which promote different aspects of ties, including business, educational, cultural and scientific. In the context of private sector ties, commerce and industry bodies like Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), CII (Confederation of Indian Industry) (Malik and Medcalf, 2011), NASSCOM, US based groups like the Indo-US Friendship Council, US-India Political Action Committee, US India Strategic Partnership Forum, US India Business Council and the like have an important part to play.
This paper is especially interested in understanding how Indian foreign policy think tanks have played a role in enhancing US-India ties, and how this is driven by a common alignment of goals of the Indian and American states and the private sector of the two countries.
Indian foreign policy thinks
While the role of foreign think tanks in America’s policy making is fairly well understood and documented, this has not been the case in India. New studies are looking at the subject and attempting to plug this gap (See Reading list). As of 2020, India had the third largest number of think tanks (Global Go To Think Tank Index Report, 2020) in the world (612), behind China and United States. In 2019 (Global Go To Think Tank Index Report, 2019), India had the second largest (509), behind the United States (1871).
Most Indian foreign policy think tanks tend to be based in Delhi, while a handful are located in cities such as Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai.
Several foreign policy think tanks offer funding information in varying degrees of transparency on their websites. However, the funding and/or political affiliations are rarely if ever publicly explained, debated or elaborated on. In some cases, even the source of funding for the think tank isn’t public information.
In course of her research on Indian think tanks, the author learnt that non-government foreign policy think tanks struggle to get much funding from the Ministry of External Affairs. Even while select private think tanks have been beneficiaries of some government largesse, by and large, private think tanks need to raise much of their funds from external sources. They thus turn to the Indian private sector, foundations, international development aid agencies, embassies and consulates of foreign countries, and international organizations like the United Nations.
India’s prominent business families and corporations have widely invested in foreign policy, energy, environment and telecom think tanks. But even as Indian foreign policy think tanks owe much to the Indian private sector, the broader opinion in the think tank community is that big Indian business gives much more generously to American universities and think tanks.
For example, the businessman Anand Mahindra gave $10 million to Harvard University’s Humanities Centre in 2010 (PTI, 2010). The same year Harvard Business School received a gift of $ 50 million from Tata Trusts and Companies (HBS, 2010).
In 2017-2018 alone, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace received over $ 1 million from Indian sources like the Tata Education and Development Trusts, in the range of $100,000-499,999 from Bharti Enterprises, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, GM Rao and Tata Consultancy Services (carnegieendowment.org)
Interestingly, the same set of Indian business donors which fund think tanks domestically also pour millions into educational institutions and think tanks in the United States.
Endorsing ties with the US
Delhi’s foreign policy think tanks in Delhi usually endorse stronger ties with the US. Indian think tanks also feel deeply inspired by their American counterparts. At one point, the Reliance Industries funded Observer Research Foundation (ORF) aspired to be the ‘Indian Brookings’ (Muni, 2010). When India’s defense ministry founded the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA), America’s RAND Corporation and the London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) were considered as possible models (Subrahmanyam, 1990). The Indian Council of World Affairs, established by the Ministry of External Affairs was partly inspired by the Institute of Pacific Relations (Thakur and Davis, 2017).
Interest from the US foreign policy community in India gained significant momentum after India’s nuclear tests of 1998. “With India going nuclear in May 1998, there was a growing eagerness in the US and other western countries to plumb the thinking in strategic circles here. In addition, India’s economic growth and its emergence as an investment destination stoked further interest.” (Sharma, 2011)
In 2001, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) partnered with the United States-based Aspen Institute to sponsor a meeting between Indian and American leaders in the Indian city of Udaipur. The meeting brought together names like Henry A. Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, the scholar Joseph S. Nye Jr., industrialist Ratan N. Tata and influential Indian diplomats. (Yardley, 2012)
This gave birth to the US-India strategic dialogue, a Track II dialogue, involving participation from academia, industry, media, NGOs, members of US Congress and Indian parliamentarians (aspeninstitute.org). A few years later the Ananta Aspen Centre was established in Delhi, as an offshoot of the US based Aspen Institute. A major activity of the Ananta Aspen institute has been the convening of track-II dialogues with the US, in addition to nations like Singapore and Israel (anantaaspencentre.in).
The Indo-US nuclear deal negotiated in the 2000s added to India’s visibility in international fora. Plus, increasing Chinese activities in the South China Sea and India’s emergence as a major consumer market and with lucrative projects in gas, oil and infrastructure, in addition to its increasing purchase of arms made India much more significant (Interview to the author by Ajai Shukla, 2017).
Delegations from the Brookings Institution, Rand Corporation, Centre for International and Strategic Studies and Heritage Foundation and other think tanks cultivated increasing ties with Indian think tanks (Sharma, 2011), government and analysts, seeking to understand Indian strategic and business interests and the common ground with the United States.
The Brookings Institution set up its Delhi office in 2013 while the Carnegie Endowment followed suit in 2013. Brookings had already opened its China and Doha centres.
According to ‘Brookings 2.0‘, a vision document of the think tank, suggests that the overseas centres will work towards promoting American leadership abroad, which it views as ‘essential’ (Sarkar, 2018)
“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.”
Similarly, Carnegie Endowment with its headquarters in Washington has centres in Brussels, Moscow, Beirut, Beijing, and established its Delhi office in 2016. The stated rationale for the centres being that the think tank needed to globalise because issues like trade, terrorism, nonproliferation and climate change have a global significance – and areas where US leadership is needed (Sarkar 2017).
Carnegie and Brookings were perhaps following the American flag in setting up their overseas centres. However, their arrival in India was facilitated and welcomed by different sections of the Indian elite including government, media, academia and business (ibid.).
Brookings India was renamed as the Centre for Social and Economic Progress in 2020 (Mukul, 2020), while continuing to retain Brookings India’s personnel, values and funding structures (csep.org). Its major donors represent big Indian business, ranging from Adi Godrej, Aditya Birla Group, Nita and Mukesh Ambani, Rahul Bajaj, Tata Group and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw among others (ibid.). Carnegie India is a recipient of similar funding.
Indian business interests also had a major role in establishing the Ananta Aspen Centre in the early 2000s. The former director general of the Confederation of Indian Industrry (CII), Tarun Das was a longtime advocate of an Aspen Institute in India (anantaaspencentre.in).
Indian business too is represented on the boards of American think tanks. For example, businessmen Ratan Tata and CK Birla are on the board of trustees of the Carnegie Endowment (carnegieendowment.org). Representatives of Bharti Enterprises and ArcelorMittal Europe are on the Brookings’ board of trustees (brookings.edu).
Figures from the US India Business Council give us further insights into the significant extent of India US business ties. More than 750 US companies are operational in India while Indian companies invested $13.1 billion in the US in 2017 (USIBC, 2019)
Following the flag
More recently, the India US relationship was constrained when the Indian BJP government under Prime Minister passed a series of controversial and deeply contested measures, which were also the subject of much international criticism.
These include but are not limited to abrogation of Article 370 which changed the special status of Kashmir, the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act which discriminates against Muslims, and new farming bills, which triggered tremendous unrest and brought Indian farmers on to the streets. The protests were met with a brutal government crackdown. These developments received adverse commentary in American press, were raised by US senators and were also the subject of US Congress hearings (Kronstadt et al., 2021).
The broader issue of human rights in India has received growing attention in the U.S. Congress especially with regard to Kashmir, new Indian citizenship laws, freedoms of religion and expression, and, most recently, Indian farmer protests (ibid.)
The 2021 Annual Report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that the United States designate India as a “country of particular concern” for engaging in and tolerating systematic, egregious religious freedom violations. The Indian government rejected the findings of the USCIRF reports, calling them “prejudiced, inaccurate, and misleading. The Narendra Modi led government has also been widely criticised for ordering internet shutdowns, arresting journalists and activists, and stiflling dissent- all strong indicators of authoritarianism (ibid.)
The international criticism (Haider, 2020) was such that rather than dealing with bilateral ties, India’s Ministry of External Affairs and its missions abroad were ”fully devoted to dealing with India’s domestic concerns and their fallout.” India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar had to give extensive interviews to the European and US, media and make speeches at prominent think tanks in Washington and New York “Missions everywhere, including in friendly countries, have been overworked, disseminating FAQs and lobbying with lawmakers on Article 370, the Ayodhya verdict and the CAA. (ibid).”
It was on the heels of the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir that Observer Research Foundation, an Indian think tank with very close links to the Indian government and founded by Reliance Industries, a giant Indian corporation – announced the launch of ORF America, its overseas affiliate in Washington. Interestingly, the son of Indian External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar was chosen to lead the think tank’s Washington operations. (Sarkar, 2020).
Of the seven board members of ORF America, one is a senior executive of Reliance Jio (orfamerica.org).
ORF America’s launch was made evident at a high profile event jointly organised in Washington DC by ORF India and the conservative Heritage Foundation. Held in September 2019, the event was titled India on the Hill: Charting a Future for Indo-US Relations,” and attended by India’s ambassador to the United States, Indian and US politicians the corporate world. It was timed to occur just before a week-long visit to the United States by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Sarkar, 2020).
The think tank maintains that it is independent, but it doubtlessly remains deeply tied to its core funder Reliance Industries, both financially and operationally. ORF India is also the organizer of India’s flagship foreign policy conference known as the Raisina Dialogue, which it organizes jointly with the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (ibid.)
India and the United States have maintained their ties through wide-ranging means and mechanisms. Indian and American foreign policy think tanks, backed by corporate funding in both countries, have played a significant but less understood role. The last decade saw prominent American think tanks express interest in establishing India centres. A much more recent development is that Indian think tanks, supported by private sector funding and the Indian government, are trying to make their presence felt in Washington.
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