The Centre for Policy Research (CPR) completes 47 years on 2 November 2020. In this interview, Senior Fellow and Member of CPR’s Governing Board, Shyam Saran shares his impressions about CPR’s journey, his vision for CPR in the years to come, his research, experiences and more.
CPR turns 47 this year; how would you view the journey over the past four plus decades? Is there an absolute highlight in CPR’s long history that stands out for you?
CPR’s journey over the past four decades and more has been one of sustained intellectual exploration, providing a platform for differing perspectives and public debate on issues of the day. Its success is evident from the fact that no ideological label adheres to it and its credibility is unquestioned. It has, over the years, attracted some of the brightest minds in the country who bring both scholarly ability and passion to their work. On any given day one will find commentaries and analyses by one or the other CPR faculty member in frontline media.
What for you is the measure of the impact of CPR – is it across the policy space, or in generating public debate, or in academia?
The impact is in all three domains but as a policy think tank, CPR aims to influence policy through informed debate and analytical work that may be specific to a policy challenge. Sometimes decision makers in government reach out to CPR to support their work through data collection and analysis and making recommendations from the vantage point of the ordinary citizen. This role of CPR is often unseen and may even be unacknowledged, but what is important to us as an institution is to make a difference rather than seek to garner credit. When we see our recommendations reflected in government policy statements, that is our satisfaction, our sense of fulfilment. And believe me, this happens more often than most people think.
But whether CPR is able to influence practical policy making or not, the work undertaken by its accomplished faculty and researchers has its own intrinsic value. Our work enjoys respect and credibility precisely because it reflects intellectual rigour and is rooted in ground-level research. There is the requirement of submitting one’s work to peer review and scrutiny often at the international level. Policy papers, research documents and publications which carry the CPR brand become the foundational reference in their respective fields. They constitute a major contribution to the academic field. But the op-eds, commentaries and columns which CPR faculty contribute to mainstream print media, their regular participation in TV interviews, debates and panel discussions and their contributions at national and international conferences and seminars, all these make CPR a most influential opinion maker covering a wide spectrum of subjects. More recently the annual CPR Dialogues has become one of the most important platforms for national and international conversations on some of the defining challenges of our times. The have covered geopolitics, the global economy, the challenge of climate change and energy security, issues related to governance, the impact of technology on politics and society and those related to gender. The Dialogues have been able to bring together some of the finest minds from India and abroad and kept alive the tradition of reasoned debate and friendly argument. CPR has also adapted very well to the challenge thrown by the ongoing pandemic, reorienting itself to the changed environment. There has been a smooth transition to the use of digital media for regular webinars and virtual conferences. There are regular podcasts on topical issues which are attracting a considerable listening audience. Activities of the Centre have expanded rather than diminished as a result of the pandemic.
A think tank sits across different roles and definitions – CPR has been referred to as intellectual brokers, or the bridge between policy and academia, or even an incubator for scholars and academics. What for you would really define CPR?
I think that CPR defies definition. It has consciously avoided imposing a narrow frame over its talented faculty and researchers, allowing them the freedom to range far and wide as long as they adhere to its high standards of scholarly rigour, meticulous research, civility in discourse and willingness to nurture their younger colleagues. Among its faculty there are those whose background is academic work and field research. There are others who have spent most of their professional life in the policy space including in government. This is one of the few think tanks in which the academic side benefits from the practical experience of the policy maker and policy actor. Conversely, the latter benefit from the academic rigour with which lessons may be drawn from their practical experience. CPR also provides a platform on which interactions can take place among academics, policy thinkers and those at decision making levels. This enriches knowledge at all levels. CPR generates knowledge, provides opportunities to exchange and thus enhance knowledge. Most challenges we confront today are cross-disciplinary and cross-domain in character. There is now a trend towards bringing together specialists in separate domains to work together on such cross domain issues. This does require a different and more collaborative approach among faculty but CPR is becoming a pioneer in this regard.
And how would you say the role of the think tank, and in particular CPR, has changed over time?
No institution can stand still while the milieu in which it operates is undergoing rapid and substantive change. CPR has had to adapt its agenda to reflect the pressing concerns of the day and the changing priorities of the country. For example, in the early days climate change was not a major issue. Today it is one of the most important disciplines at CPR. What is more important is the constant endeavour of CPR and its leadership to promote non-partisan approaches to problem solving, maintaining intellectual integrity and the courage of conviction and nurturing an environment of open debate and dissent. There is a willingness to engage with governments of different political persuasions and contribute to better policy making and implementation. It has seen its role not as a validator of government policy but rather as a source of honest critique that enables better and more efficient governance. This may have proved difficult at times but in a longer term perspective, it has given CPR a level of credibility and stature that few think tanks in the country enjoy.
How easy or difficult is it for a think tank to remain non partisan or neutral? Would you say neutrality is a key feature for a leading think tank?
I do not believe that a think tank should be neutral. Its assessments, its policy recommendations must be based on rigorous research and careful analysis. They should not be tailored to suit a certain political preference or modified to appear “neutral”. It is possible that conclusions that are drawn from our work may be unwelcome to government or be criticised as faulty or distorted. What I would expect is willingness on the part of our faculty to remain open to criticism, to be ready to engage with their detractors whether in government or outside and appreciate a different perspective or incorporate a different dimension. This must be the outcome of reasoned debate not because as a think tank one should remain neutral.
What are some of the challenges that CPR faces today? And where do you see the most opportunity for CPR to develop and contribute?
CPR has to operate in a much more challenging political, social and economic environment. There is greater official scrutiny of all think tanks and non-governmental organisations and compliance with a new and more intrusive set of regulations means that much more of our time is taken up by these requirements; less is available for doing what we do best, that is, engage in cutting edge research, contribute to better policy making and function as a knowledge centre for the country. We are also likely to face greater funding challenges, both from external as well as domestic sources, thanks to the impact of the pandemic on the finances of both the rich and poor. We will have to learn to do more with less. Fortunately, the pandemic has forced us to accelerate the adoption of digital technologies and online activity, which has reduced costs in some respects, such as on travel and the holding of physical events. However I believe that once the pandemic recedes we shall go back to some face to face interactions and physical events such as conferences. We may end up with some mix of the physical and the virtual and I think we need to be prepared for that hybrid world. But this transition is itself something that CPR should be putting on its agenda. How is this going to affect the way we do politics; what will be the impact on trade and commerce and what will a successful corporate entity look like; what should be the economic strategy of a developing country like India in this shifting landscape? Where will be the new employment opportunities. Not only do we need to look at a new policy mix; we will need to reassess our present governance institutions and processes. There are whole set of new and unfamiliar challenges. CPR is actually very well placed to take up several of these over-arching challenges for further reflection and debate.
We are seeing monumental changes to the shifting of the global order. Where do you see India standing in the global balance of power now, and in the near future?
The global geopolitical landscape is continuing to change; the contours of the new terrain are yet to acquire a definite shape. There are certain trends that were already visible before the pandemic erupted. The current crisis is likely to intensify and accelerate some of these trends. There are newer trends, too, as yet incipient in nature, but which may acquire momentum as the millennium continues to unfold. What are these existing and future trends?
The centre of gravity of the global economy in terms of trade and capital flows and size of markets had already been shifting from the trans-Atlantic to the trans-Pacific. There is a relative decline in the economic profile of the U.S. and Western Europe; the relative role of China and East and South-East Asia and South Asia has been expanding. This is chiefly due to the emergence of China as the world’s second largest economy, its number one trading power and increasingly, its newest technological power house. The global financial and economic crisis of 2007-08 resulted in a significant setback to the economies of the U.S. and European Union; China, on the contrary, emerged from the crisis, relatively stronger and with its growth trajectory ahead of the West. The asymmetry of power between the U.S. and the China began to shrink. The pandemic has reinforced this shift as China has emerged from the pandemic relatively unscathed and its economic recovery has been the most rapid. The U.S. on the other hand has suffered a major public health catastrophe due to the still raging pandemic. Its economy is unlikely to recover until a couple of years later in the best case scenario. Therefore, China is likely to shrink the power gap with the U.S. even further in the aftermath of the pandemic. This will have significant consequences for the balance of power both in Asia and globally. It is true that the U.S. remains a formidable military power and the only one with a global reach. China is unlikely to match this in the foreseeable future. The world’s currency and financial markets are still dominated by the U.S. dollar. As long as China’s currency does not allow full convertibility and market determined rates of exchange, the Western dominance of the global financial markets will diminish only gradually. The U.S. remains the knowledge capital of the world and it is U.S. high tech companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon which dominate the high tech space. But China is catching up and in some areas like Artificial Intelligence and Quantum Computing, it may even be ahead of the U.S. Therefore, the geopolitical contestation between the U.S. and China is likely to be complex , sharper in some areas, less in others. It is also likely to be of a longer duration with neither side able to fully dominate the other.
India will have to locate itself in this complex geopolitical landscape, leveraging the opportunities that come its way and neutralising the vulnerabilities it continues to suffer from. What are India’s assets as it tries to navigate the emerging terrain? What are its vulnerabilities?
India is a great power in the making. It has an area, population, economic potential, scientific and technological capabilities, significant military assets combined with a stable polity, which gives it credibility as a driver of geopolitical change. However, the extent of its influence is linked to the trajectory of its economic growth. When it has been perceived as shrinking the power gap with China, recording growth rates higher than the latter, its strategic space and options have expanded. This was apparent in the period 2003-2007 which saw India conclude a landmark nuclear deal with the U.S., improve its relations with all its neighbours including Pakistan and China and consolidate its relations with South-East Asia and Japan. However, since the global financial and economic crisis of 2007-08, India’s growth rate has slowed down, while China has sustained a high growth trajectory. The asymmetry between India and China has been expanding and this explains China’s assertive posture towards India. For India, the China challenge can only be met in the long run by getting back to a high growth path and reducing the power asymmetry with China. In the meantime, there is no alternative to external balancing through closer security partnerships with countries that share India’s concerns over China’s unilateral assertion of power. This is precisely what is taking place through the Indo-Pacific strategy, anchored in the quadrilateral coalition of India, the U.S., Japan and Australia.
India would not wish to become a subservient entity in a Chinese dominated Asian order. However, it must consider the possibility that as in the Cold War, when the U.S. and the then Soviet Union agreed to respect each other’s sphere of influence, there may be a compromise between the U.S. and China, too, on respecting each other’s sphere of influence. In such a compromise, China would claim Asia as its area of particular interest. The U.S. may not consider India’s interests when formulating its global strategy. This must be taken into account while determining India’s posture in the post pandemic world.
The most important geopolitical space for India is its sub-continental neighbourhood. That is why the Neighbourhood First policy is indispensable. During the coming years, India must concentrate its human and material resources in securing its neighbourhood. Failure to do so will make it impossible for India to play a larger regional or global role.
Another major trend in evidence relates to technology and the growing salience of the digital economy. The ability to collect vast amounts of data, subject it to sophisticated processing using super-computing and complex software and thereby undertaking targeted marketing and running efficient supply chains, these have become a growing part of the modern economy. Thanks to the pandemic and the need for social distancing and remote communications, the digital economy has grown by leaps and bounds. There is a remarkable acceleration in the adoption of digital technologies and this is likely to bring about significant changes in the way we live and work. Countries that are already ahead in the adoption of these technologies will be the winners in the future. China is certainly forging ahead but India, too, is well placed in this respect. It has a well established policy of promoting the digital economy. It has a dynamic information technology sector which can serve as the base for such advance and in the Aadhaar universal identity system, it has an incomparable, mass scale data resource. Mobilising these assets to bring India back on a high growth path requires judicious policies and efficient implementation, while addressing concerns over privacy and cyber security.
India still enjoys a demographic advantage in its young population and the scale of its market may be leveraged to attract both capital and technology flows. There are shortcomings in infrastructure and governance challenges which inhibit such flows. These need to be identified and addressed. A policy think tank like CPR can make a valuable contribution in this respect.
COVID-19 has made us aware of the threat posed to humanity as a result of continuing and serious bio-diversity loss, which is further exacerbated by climate change. It is the loss of habitat of wild species which permitted dangerous viruses they harbour from infecting human populations they come in contact with. Climate change results in warmer temperatures which allow greater spread of pathogens among both human and animal populations. While increasing attention has been focused on these challenges, there is a likelihood that states and societies will finally begin to accept policy measure that induce lifestyle changes without which it may be impossible to tackle what has become a planetary emergency. We are likely to see more rapid adoption of non-fossil energy and expansion in the use of renewable energy. India has the opportunity to stay ahead of this energy transition having already adopted ambitious renewable energy plans.
Thus where India locates itself in the changing geopolitical matrix will depend upon policy choices that are being made today. Making these policy choices explicit and spelling out their implications is what a think tank like CPR can do best.
You have been a high serving diplomat and Ambassador for many years. During your time of service how did you work with think tanks and what value did you derive from such research as a former policy maker? How significant an impact does this research have on policy, in your opinion? What role do you think think tanks can play in the current policy context?
I bring a practitioner’s perspective to several issues on CPR’s agenda and trust that this adds value to our work. While dealing with issues in a practical manner, one often has little time to delve deeper into the issues involved, put them in a historical perspective and engage in careful research and analysis. One is unable to bring intellectual rigour and domain knowledge to the consideration of issues one has often to negotiate on. One depends upon experts and specialists to provide that support. However, at CPR one is able to engage with domain experts and gain greater understanding of issues at hand. At the same time, making our research colleagues aware of the dynamics of negotiations and the processes of decision making also enriches their understanding and quality of work. I have enjoyed the opportunity of bringing together the theoretical and the practical together and gain fresh insights. What I particularly appreciate is the role that CPR plays in nurturing the next generation of researchers and policy specialists.The Centre attracts some of the most outstanding young talent in the country and provides them with an intellectually stimulating environment. They are able to work together with some of the finest minds in the country and grow their own innate abilities and interests. CPR can take pride in the fact that over the past decades, a large cohort of CPR alumni have gone on to earn acclaim as front-ranking policy specialists in diverse fields.
What is your vision for CPR at 50?
I would like to see CPR continue to enjoy the high credibility it already commands and remain true to its founding ideals. It has to adapt its work methods to the changing demands of a country and society in the midst of deep going transition. It must be prepared to alter its agenda so that it remains aligned to the most pressing policy challenges confronting our country. However, I remain convinced that in the midst of this transition, intellectual integrity, the embrace of dissent and differing perspectives, the insistence on scholarly rigour and pursuit of excellence are values that CPR must remain committed to as a front ranking institution.CPR at 50 should project itself as a forward looking institution, in the vanguard of policy debates, but refuse to compromise on the very well-springs of its hard earned reputation and respect.
This is the first interview in our series on CPR’s 47th anniversary. Our next interview will feature Dr Meenakshi Gopinath, Chairperson of the CPR Governing Board.