Where there is no party line

Think tanking in the age of extreme partisanship

Takshashila People

One reason there has been a fall (okay, precipitous fall) in the frequency of posts on this blog is that the day-to-day challenges of building an upstart think tank drain one’s time and energy. Another is laziness, lethargy and procrastination. Yet another is twitter, which is still the path of least resistance for the current of thought to reach the ground of public discourse. Laziness and twitter are easy to understand reasons, but what is this business of building a think tank? Almost five years since the first stamp paper was stamped at a registrar’s office in Chennai, it might be a good time to share some thoughts and experiences to deter other thoughtful, unsuspecting souls from attempting something similar.

This post is written with the intent of being the first in a series. But just like how N is initially unknown in a 1/N series of tweets, it is by no means certain that this series will be any longer than this first post. With that disclaimer, let us look at two of our core values: funding, and independence & non-partisanship.

From the outset, Takshashila’s founders decided that the organisation, a non-profit public charitable trust, will operate solely on Indian money. After all, it would be ironic for an ambition that reads “building the intellectual foundations of an India with global interests” to be financed with foreign donations. Also, foreign funding would hand detractors and opponents of our ideas a convenient handle to deliberately mischaracterise our public policy arguments as playing to a foreign agenda. Since many of the arguments that we make ruthlessly in the national interest are counter-intuitive, they are vulnerable to smear campaigns. Imagine arguing (as we have done) for 100% FDI in defence production with an unconditional, unrelated grant from a respected foreign foundation. The elimination of foreign funding has made life a lot more tougher than it could have been, but since we are set for the long haul, it is a price we have happily paid.

Maintaining independence and non-partisanship the other hard challenge, and one we’ve managed to address quite well. First, while it is relatively easy to manage an organisation (a private corporation, an association or a political party) that has an official view that everyone must fall in line with (or leave), it is much more difficult to manage one that doesn’t. A think tank and a public policy school cannot function effectively unless its members have full intellectual freedom. Yet when this freedom causes a diversity of opinions to be expressed, there is often a internal tension among those supporting different positions, and an external confusion as to whether the institution supports one or the other view. The one on whose shoulders falls the job of managing the institution, yours truly’s in this case, has to act as a mediator, negotiating platform and conciliator internally, and an official disclaimer-issuer and ‘brand manager’ externally. This is not easy. Worse, in a small start-up institution like ours, there is always the possibility that my own views–and those of the other co-founders–are conflated with that of the organisation’s, which sometimes leads to pulled punches, less trenchant blog posts and blander language in newspaper columns.

Since 2010, public discourse in India has become edgy, sharply divisive and polarised. Everyone is quick to paint an unfamiliar or unsavoury opinion as an attack on one’s favoured politician or party. The political campaigns of the 2014 general election had massive online components, and online political entrepreneurs seeking to gain political prominence and spoils of power by attacking ‘the other side’. So Takshashila was on Congress payroll for the BJP’s vociferous online partisans (who we endearingly call “the wrong wing”), an RSS front for the Congress’s beleaguered but spirited online brigade and pro-corruption for Anna Hazare & Arvind Kejriwal supporters. The Communists somehow forgot to attack us, which is perhaps an indication of their irrelevance, or ours. Kabira had gone to the bazaar to ask for everyone’s well-being, but ended up being attacked by them all. There is a lesson in this which we took and we teach.

Another interesting phenomenon was that those who donated to us—including Rohini Nilekani, our first donor—did not once even hint what positions Takshashila should or shouldn’t take. But those who didn’t give us any money often vociferously insisted what political positions we should take for our own good. It is now not too hard to detect political partisans pretending to be broad-minded philanthropists. It is also heartening that there are enough of the latter to lend their support to us, in big or small ways.

I have always found the allegation “you are saying this because XYZ is your donor” an indication of the person making the allegation projecting his own values on his target. As acts of honour and integrity even in today’s famously compromised media industry show, not everyone who draws a pay cheque necessarily dances to the tunes of the owners or donors. For small startups like ours, with low stakes, it is relatively inexpensive to be independent and non-partisan and call things as we see them. Judgement calls on the safety of our members and their families apart, there is little to make us toe anyone’s line. So we merrily advocate what we see as the national interest, and we try to persuade others to see things our way.

This does not mean that we are “neutral”. Our ideological leanings are openly advertised: freedom, a culture of tolerance, an open society and strengthening India’s national power. These set of ideas can be called “liberal nationalism”, but it is the values that matter, not the label.

It’s not enough to be and act independently and in a non-partisan manner. It is important to be perceived as such by the people we are trying to persuade. That was a problem I had no good solution for until the good Jay Panda, BJD MP from Odisha, gave me an idea from his own experience: set up a Ombudsman with a mandate to deal with complaints regarding these values. The Ombudsman can also solicit informal and formal feedback if he deems necessary. So we instituted a powerful Ombudsman—a trustee with no role in management—who anyone can directly write to. It’s early days yet, but this does appear a good process to manage the tensions that arise from an organisation whose members are making forceful arguments in a politicised public discourse. In our view, “non-partisanship does not mean non-engagement. On the contrary, Takshashila’s policy remains to engage with all political parties while remaining firmly independent of them. We believe that engagement with the political process is an important aspect in achieving public outcomes in a democracy.”

The biggest asset Takshashila has today is the goodwill of its supporters and the credibility among a small section of India’s elite. Our success will continue to come from this, hopefully growing constituency.

How to spot the next revolution

Demographics, mobile phone penetration and the army’s disposition

Earlier this month, after the protests in Tunisia caused the reigning despot to fly to Saudi Arabia, this blogger said that the phenomenon is unlikely to spread. In the event this was proven wrong by Egypt. Bear this in mind as you read the rest of this post.

How can we tell which country is susceptible to political transformation brought about by “people power”? Here’s a rough guide:

First, look at demographics. Scholars such as Samuel Huntington, Jack Goldstone, Gunnar Heinsohn and Henrik Urdal argue that if there are a large number of young, healthy, educated and dissatisfied men, the stage is set for unrest. Of these Mr Heinsohn goes the furthest, predicting that when the population of 15 to 29-year-olds crosses 30 percent of the overall population, then, regardless of the cause, violence will ensue. The countries of sub-Saharan Africa, Arab North Africa, the mainland Arabia and Pakistan meet this criterion. Turkey and Iran are exceptions. [Related link: The New Security Beat blog has a good discussion on this]

Second, look at mobile telephone and internet penetration. Mobilising large numbers of people in short periods of time requires ubiquitous access to mobile phones and the internet. This is important because state machinery can pre-empt large protests if they have enough time to identify, intimidate or imprison the field organisers. That is why Twitter (and to an extent Facebook) beat SMS text messages, and why text messages beat phone calls and pamphlets. A tweet is likely to reach any given fraction of the population orders of magnitude faster than a SMS text message. Most importantly, they work in combination—a tweet can be relayed on SMS, and vice versa.

(In fact, the failure to account for this factor might be one reason why I underestimated the likelihood Egypt will stir. Both Hosni Mubarak and I might have been stumped by the speed of the mobilisation.)

While technology allows faster mobilisation, it does not create leadership or an alternative political vision. It is not surprising that some of the recent “leaderless” uprisings do not have a clear idea of “what next?” beyond the toppling of the current regime. What this means is that organised political groups—like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—can wait for the uprising to oust the incumbent, even let a transition government operate for a while, before stepping in to take over. Not unlike what the Pakistani military-jihadi complex did following the ouster of General Musharraf.

Third, when it comes to the crunch, look at whether the security forces—specifically the army—will fire upon their own people. This is both a yes/no question, as well as a question of extent.

In countries with compulsory military service, it is less likely that the army will fire on its own people. In countries where the armed forces are insulated from the general public—culturally, socio-economically or ideologically—then it is more likely that the army will not have such compunctions. That is why Iran has a special revolutionary guard that is distinct from the army. This is also why the Pakistani army engages in massive domestic skulduggery, because its leaders do not want to be in a situation where they have to fire at Pakistanis from the Punjabi heartland.

Worked Examples

Tunisia
Demographics: median age 29, (borderline) check.
Mobile phone penetration 95.3%, check. Internet 4.5% no check.
Army: Didn’t fire

Egypt
Demographics: median age 24, check.
Mobile phone penetration 77%, check. Internet 21.1% no check.
Army: ?

The rest is left as an exercise for the interested reader.