CPR at 47: From CPR’s Chairperson, Dr Meenakshi Gopinath

19 November 2020
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The Centre for Policy Research (CPR) completed 47 years on 2 November 2020. In this piece, Chairperson of CPR’s Governing Board, Dr Meenakshi Gopinath shares her impressions about CPR's journey, her vision for the institution, and what sets it apart.

My association with CPR goes back two decades, to a time when its intrepid founder Dr Pai Panandiker was still President of this unique organisation. It was his vision and dynamism that laid the foundations of a vibrant space that pioneered the impressive body of work on policy issues in India that CPR has come to represent. The imagination and indeed audaciousness that activated CPR from its origins in 1973 – when no ‘think tank’ of its kind existed – brought to its fold a galaxy of intellectuals to engage on issues of the economy and polity. Eminent thought leaders, scholars, foreign policy and security experts, policymakers, journalists – even three latter-day Prime Ministers – found here a hospitable context for a free exchange of ideas and independent research on the issues at stake.

The few think tanks that existed then were either part of the government (like the IDSA) or emerged as extensions of universities like the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies or the Institute of Economic Growth in New Delhi.

CPR, however was envisaged as an ecosystem that interfaced between the university and government to breathe intellectual life into what its founder saw as a moribund system of public administration, hamstrung by the povertyof imagination. The focus of its work initially revolved around the twin axes of the economy and governance; it soon established a formidable presence in the areas of security and foreign policy as well.

One of the most wonderful aspects about a space that commits itself to the exploration of the workings of democracy is that it subjects itself to continuous self-examination and renewal. It maintains its original function to uncover the many dimensions of engaged citizenship, but is also innovative. Such a space reaches beyond the work of its founders, beyond the contributions of an individual and is the collective work of generations. CPR is such a space – a space of engagement like no other.

Pai Panandiker’s successor Prof. Charan Wadhwa, who had joined the Centre in 1987, strove to consolidate its reputation as a major intellectual hub in economic research, urbanisation and foreign policy. Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s tenure as President witnessed an efflorescence of research across diverse sectors with several new initiatives added on, like Climate Change, Accountability, Land Rights and so on.

International collaborators sought out CPR as the ideal location for interdisciplinary research. The influx of a large number of young researchers during this phase nudged it into newer areas of research and innovative methodologies. With Yamini Aiyar as President – one of the few women heads of Think Tanks in India - the emphasis on Action Research on state capacity to deliver on governance and citizen entitlements has received a new fillip. In addition, new initiatives have also been launched on the study of politics in contemporary India and its interface with policy, on jobs, technology and society and strengthening public health in a post COVID-19 era.

So what is it that makes CPR unique and sets it apart even as it has evolved and explored new pathways?

CPR is a research and praxis initiative. Several of its programmes like the Land Rights, Scaling Cities, and Accountability Initiatives have built robust training programmes to create cadres of engaged citizens that facilitate action around policies that impact the quality of lives, livelihoods and rights.

CPR is a non-hierarchical space where democratic debate and dialogue are encouraged, where expertise and experience, interact with potentialwhere senior experts collaborate seamlessly with young entrants into the field. In fact, young scholars and researchers constitute its major segment. This has been a very significant evolution from the mid-2000s onwards.

CPR adheres staunchly to non-partisanship and values its independence, maintaining equidistance from competing political party-driven, even state-driven compulsions. There is a high premium on the integrity of its research, a continuous openness to a diversity of opinions reflecting a capacious heterodoxy, a multi-valency of voices, a non-monolithic imagination.

CPR’s work spans the local, national, regional and global. It is as much at home debating Strategic Affairs and Foreign Policy, as it is interfacing with civil society at the grassroots. Whether through its State Capacity Initiative reaching out to identify the nuts and bolts of state functioning to deliver on governance; or its Urbanisation, Scaling Cities and Sanitation projects foregrounding issues of justice and its Climate, Energy and Environment Initiatives contributing to making an impact on the deliberations around Climate Change at international fora; or in offering templates for Indian Foreign Policy to play a more, impactful role in its neighbourhood – the impulse has been to push towards newer paradigms for policy making.

At CPR, the local and the global are not seen as discrete spaces, but as a matrix of criss-crossing trajectories that require collaborative, consultative processes. This kind of interdisciplinarity is fully on display at the hugely popular Annual CPR Dialogues that draws enthusiastic participation from across sectors. Moving seamlessly from the local through the national, regional and global domains, CPR’s work transcends programmatic silos.

The nature of policy research is not narrowly prescriptive here. What is emphasised is the option generating imagination that is best suited to the complex, diverse, highly variegated governance ecosystem of the country, so that policymakers can engage in a dynamic scenario-building exercise with CPR’s experts contributing to build a dialogic process that bring voices to the table that are not often heard during policy consultations. In fact, at the recent conclave on Building Civil Society Organisations for the Future, CPR’s formidable convening capacity across sectors was clearly in evidence.

For an institution that celebrates its Golden Jubilee three years from now, CPR is incredibly young. Its resilience and vitality is reflected in its ability to continuously reinvent itself. Keeping in mind the changing national scenario and global imperatives CPR has added newer projects even while fine-tuning and refining existing programmes. There is a continuous striving for greater congruence between projects. The State Capacity Initiative and Accountability Initiative are cases in point. Both ask the question: What would it take to build a responsive 21st century state in India? How can the gap between government and CSOs be filled to deliver better governance to citizens?

Through the ebbs and flows of substantive changes nationally and globally, the continuity of focus on how policy is made, how it should be made – and what policies remain to be made, animates CPR’s engagement. Despite differing leadership styles, CPR can pride itself in its exemplary leadership comprising people with impeccable track records of expertise inventiveness and integrity. Their singular contribution to the preservation and expansion of a unique thought space has yielded a repertoire of debate, dialogue and activity that is unmatched in vitality.

The sheer efflorescence of output at CPR is reason to celebrate. With the average age of the research staff at CPR at 35 and Senior faculty between 40-52, it remains young and vibrant. The 167 peer reviewed papers, 140 chapters in Journals, 40 books, 226 working papers, 228 Policy briefs, and Reports over the last decade reflect this energy. The last 5 years alone have seen 81 memos and Party Briefs to MPs and 276 targeted meetings with policymakers.

The interesting play of continuity and tradition at CPR is also reflected in its ability to handle transitions seamlessly. CPR’s name recognition comes with an identity that is greater than the sum of its parts. CPR has stayed largely free of becoming synonymous with one person; a sense of collective ownership has been consciously nurtured, certainly over the past decade and more.

In fact, CPR has an impressive diversity profile; having worked in an academic space for most of my life, I see this as its great asset. CPR provides a vital interface between academia and the policy space – and also has characteristics of both. Several young scholars chose CPR to hone their research skills in a context that that gives them both autonomy and responsibility.

Perhaps even ‘think tank’ may not be an entirely appropriate epithet for CPR: that puts it in a Procrustean bed. CPR defies these narrow classifications. While being a powerhouse of ideas, it is a place for open and free debate on diverse issues. It is a community of practice where serious hard-nosed research coexists with outreach, bringing in voices from the margins and amplifying them for the attention of policymakers to build both citizen and state capacities. It has the energy of a Multiversity – open, fluid, flexible and ever in flow. What label would you give such a space? A deeply liberal institution in the marketplace of ideas, CPR is a platform – not merely an organisation.

States and public institutions are today at a critical inflection point when it comes to their role in the functioning of democratic processes. They are being called out almost on a daily basis. This is a wake-up call to begin scripting a new social compact that recognizes the upsurge of rising expectations among the citizenry. Providing the conceptual alphabet to shape and script public discourse in a manner that makes despair unconvincing and hope practical is the need of the hour. Think Tanks must give way to Think Corridors, Think Confluences or Think Pathways. CPR is eminently positioned to lead and provide direction in this regard.

Congruence between projects is key to the confluence of ideas. This is a constant striving at CPR, and must remain so for the future. There are serious interrogations going on at the level of civil society on the fundamental tenets of governance in India – democracy, development, land for public interest, identity, the spirit of federalism and so on – that are being whittled down through executive fiat. There is an urgent need to break the conventional conceptual binaries of policy vs implementation, flexibility vs accountability, and generalist vs specialist in order to shape innovative research platforms where a more relevant lexicon is generated that addresses cross-cutting policy concerns. CPR has set itself such a task.

We are talking about fostering an ecosystem of engagement that builds a relevant analytical framework for understanding emerging challenges by generating high-quality research based on evidence and meaningful synthesis, deepening public debate and developing a shared vision that can sustain communities of practice across the country. In short, a new engagement to shape policy-making, keeping in mind the underlying dynamic of structural constraints to open up enabling spaces.  

In all of this, the CPR Board has through systematic vigilance and oversight ensured that the integrity and quality of research, internal governance and accountability structures – administrative and financial – are maintained. The Board that comprises academics, civil servants, legal and financial experts, diplomats, corporate professionals, civil society practitioners and leaders from industry has fiercely guarded the autonomy and non-partisan character of CPR. Deeply committed to the values of dialogue and discussion, the Board helps further the agenda of CPR to offer viable policy options to deepen substantive democracy and sustainable development within the country and also maximise India’s positive footprint on the global landscape. In this, it strives to maintain the fine balance between the imperatives of organisational structure and democratic space as an integral feature of CPR’s DNA.

Going Forward

As we approach 50 years at CPR, there are, as always, opportunities as well as challenges. We are at an inflection point – globally as well as nationally. The coronavirus pandemic has added layers of uncertainty, but also pointed to alternative ways of Being and Doing

How do we envision CPR in the years ahead? We envision it as the ‘go to’ place for researchers, policymakers, government officials and scholars to access robust, high-quality, substantive, dispassionate research on issues of policy and governance; a place that seriously examines the options available to governments and citizens as they navigate rights and responsibilities through the labyrinths of decision-making processes; a hub that uses its convening power to draw in other think tanks for collaborative explorations. The mantra I would use to describe this is One Choice – Infinite Possibilities: the choice being CPR, a space where potential policymakers and young scholars engage to test hypotheses and access the expertise of senior practitioners in the field; a space that evokes trust and respect and where more and more Indian philanthropists see the value in supporting work that foregrounds Ideas whose time has come.

Two or three specific initiatives that we hope to launch are:

  1. Thought Labs curated by experts where young civil society practitioners, civil servants, law makers and media persons can hold dialogues and deliberate on the framing of foreign policy and the workings of Indian democracy. We hope to add other themes to this repertoire.
  2. We also look to better ‘engender’ the discourse at CPR. For example, the Women Peace and Security Agenda that is currently been extensively debated globally should be mainstreamed alongside our discussions on foreign policy.
  3. The Accountability Initiative has engaged with primary education. Now, with the New Education Policy (NEP) there is the real challenge of implementation that CPR will need to address and that will also include the Higher Education sector. 

CPR @ 50 will further consolidate its place in the public imagination as a space that is a veritable laboratory of ideas, analyses and recommendations on policy, abuzz with the energy of people who dare to think out of the box as they collaboratively explore the many potentialities of democratic governance. We see CPR as transgressing the conventional trappings of ‘think tanks’ sitting in rarefied zones of intellectual and funding privilege; we see it as providing enough light and room to let in the resonances of invisible aspirations to reclaim voice and agency.

CPR will ever remain a welcoming space of engaging with possibilities rather than limits. That is the key to our distinctiveness.

This is the second piece in our series on CPR's 47th anniversary. Our first piece featured an interview of Senior Fellow and Member of CPR’s Governing Board, Ambassador Shyam Saran. Read the interview here

The views shared belong to individual faculty and researchers and do not represent an institutional stance on the issue.