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Why Think Tanks Matter in Electoral Politics: Facts and Issues

C3S Event Report No: 002/2019

Read and download the event concept note and programme at this link: TTCSP Concept note and Programme

The Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S) in collaboration with The Think Tank Civil Societies Program, University of Pennsylvania (TTCSP), Press Institute of India (PII) and National Maritime Foundation (NMF) organized a one-day International Conference on the theme of ‘Why Think Tanks Matter in Electoral Politics: Facts and Issues.’ The event was held at the Press Institute of India, Taramani on January 31 2019.

Mr Sashi Nair, Director & Editor, Press Institute of India – Research Institute for Newspaper Development (PII-RIND) welcomed the gathering.  He stated that journalism, media and politics are going through uncertain times in the current scenario. In this era of social media, the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ has emerged as an “epidemic” which is challenging to control.  With the advent of social media, the task of fact-checkers has become very difficult as the amount of information which is generated on these platforms is not easy to verify. This event would attempt to discuss solutions to these issues.

Cmde. R. S. Vasan IN (Retd), Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S); Regional Director, NMF-Tamil Nadu; and Head, Strategy and Security Studies, Centre for Asia Studies (CAS), gave the opening remarks via a virtual message. It was described, how on the same day of the event,  spread across time zones, think tanks were conducting the same TTCSP event in 200 cities around the world. The global objective was ‘Facts and Why Think Tanks Matter’. This Chennai-based event aimed to take the discussion to the next level, namely to examine the relevance of think tanks in shaping policy and to analyze how civil society organizations can better contribute to the nation-building process. There are path-breaking challenges for think tanks to overcome before their views stand out, especially due to an information explosion amidst digital platforms and a deluge of fake news in the media domain. The event was set to provide crucial pointers through well-informed debate during the sessions, on the way think tanks need to work to be able to provide the necessary timely credible inputs to the discerning public.

Col. R. Hariharan VSM (Retd.), Retired Officer of Intelligence Corps, Government of India; Member, C3S, delivered the Inaugural Address. The speaker while having vast experience in working with different non-profit organizations,  suggested that think tanks or non-profit organizations must not only have philanthropic attitude and research capability but must also display management and leadership skills. A management perspective was given on how to improve the performances of think tanks, NGOs and civil society organizations.  A major role of think tanks and civil society actors is to carry out policy-advisory tasks and induce systemic changes in the political system for the common good. Think tanks and NGOs can play a major role in creating awareness amongst the electoral group. They can and should actively take part in the electoral process, and oversee that the elections are conducted free and fair. They can also assist in improving electoral laws. It was described how in the current era,  think tanks have political affiliations, which hampers their objectivity, thus resulting in a lack of genuine electoral inputs. While digital technology can ease this process, it has its cons as well.

The Keynote Address was delivered by Shri. B.S. Raghavan, IAS (Retd.), Former Policy Advisor to UN (FAO), Chief Secretary, State Governments of West Bengal and Tripura, Secretary to the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, Government of India; Patron, C3S . It was said that the event was being held at a very crucial time when the country is gearing itself up for the national elections. It is the appropriate time for think tanks to clarify what role they desire and how to go about it. Think tanks must ponder on ways in which they can aid free and fair elections in the country. More importantly, think tanks need to reflect and act on how they can help voters to make informed choices in the electoral process. It is important for think tanks to educate people in order to enhance the successful functioning of a real democracy. Think tanks represent a wealth of knowledge which enriches the people’s discourse. If l these think tanks and other organizations such as NGOs converge with the aim of enriching public discourse, they would become forces to reckon with. The challenges for think Tanks are many – (1) Unfamiliar terrain: Electoral politics are unfamiliar terrain for think tanks. There are no ‘rules of the games’ in politics whereas think tanks work within a particular set of norms. While think tanks strive towards balance and objectivity and politics is filled with malign, so a middle ground is needed where these two very different fields could work together. (2) The uniqueness of Indian society: The election experiences in other countries cannot be applied to India, due to its vast population, geography and diversity. (3) The is a question of language: Think tanks need to produce information in vernacular languages which reaches to the general population and grassroots. (4) Resources: One of the biggest challenges faced by r think tanks is of acquiring resources for functioning. Even if these organizations obtain funding from particular sources, the autonomy of research and policymaking could be affected. Despite these challenges, there are numerous opportunities for think tanks to prepare, sensitize and mobilize voters and political parties to enjoy free and fair elections. Setting up an election watch before and after elections could also contribute to the aim of educating masses about political candidates. The speaker concluded that think tanks must also operate from the ground and act from the field.    

Plenary session I was a Panel Discussion on ‘The Role of Think Tanks’, which was moderated by Mr. K. Subramanian, Former Joint Secretary (Retd.), Ministry of Finance, Government of India; Treasurer, C3S.

Dr. V. S. Sambandan, Chief Administrative Officer, The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, the first panelist, stated that parliamentary democracy is facing difficult times. In parallel, there is a constant ideological battlefield between think tanks. This ideological inclination could be attributed to the funding of some of these think tanks originating from political parties, leading to friction between think tanks. Questions were raised on such funding, especially on where is public money being spent in reality. In contemporary times, public money is being spent on private ventures as well as furthering the motives of political parties via think tanks. The role of think tanks needs to be re-invented and re-evaluated. Think tanks can be valuable platforms for deliberation between politicians and citizens of any country; hence pushing the frontiers of public policy and political discourse via academic research and knowledge dissemination through other means. This would, in turn, enable an informed decision-making process. It is crucial for think tanks to evaluate the credibility of promises made by politicians to the common man.

The next panelist Mr. R. K. Radhakrishnan, Associate Editor, Frontline, Chennai, spoke on the role of media in contributing to the making o governments in India. In the post-independence history of India, the full mandate of any political party in a general election have always been a result of some unforeseen circumstances in the pre-election period. However, in 2014, the full mandate of the (present) government cannot be attributed to any event prior elections; rather it was the media’s emerging role of spreading populist messages. According to the panelist, during the 2014 election campaigns, a dramatic increase in the use of social media was witnessed, including celebrities discussing politics on social media platforms, several politicians directly  reaching the masses via digital platforms and political parties making use of the media as a channel to directly target opposition parties- these were the moves made since prior to the 2014 general elections. The period of 2013-2014 saw a massive rise of news channels aligning with particular parties, and “bombarding” the then government of UPA II with accusations, and increasingly reporting on cases of corruption,  while the sudden public uproar amidst the ‘Anna Hazare- Lok Pal Bill movement’ set the stage for the elections. UPA II underestimated the role of the media and hence, it led to the victory of the BJP government which won a majority. On the very same populism issues in the current scenario, the media is silent, thus indicating which indicates that how the media is used by political parties to influence general public during elections, which becomes a determining factor in poll results.

Prof. Janakarajan Srinivasan, Professor and Officiating Director, Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) was the next panelist. He spoke on normative concerns and issues related to the functioning of think tanks. Concerns were raised about the objectivity of think tanks. The lack of transparency in think tanks’ governing systems is the biggest limitation to the organizations’ objectivity.  The extent to which think tanks can a country’s electoral politics is yet to be analysed t, as is the extent to which think tanks can actually influence policymaking in a country. Electoral politics sway away from the real issues of concern to the general public, due to the rhetorical discourse of political parties.  Think tanks can hence play a bigger role in making these real issues gain prominence amidst the distractions of political rhetoric.

Plenary Session II was a Panel Discussion on the Role of Media. It was chaired by Mr. R. K. Radhakrishnan.

Mr. Peer Mohamed, Senior Editor, Founder and CEO, ippodhu.com, Chennai highlighted that although the media is often misused in electoral politics, there are several advantages to be harnessed. The digital inclusiveness of media is a powerful tool to be reckoned with. It not only provides access to information but is also a platform that empowers the public for openly expressing their opinions. Media producers and consumers should both help in synergizing the online and offline worlds, the key to which is being connected and aware about the ground realities. There is a constant struggle in the digital domain in terms of right to information, how much information can be shared and what kind of data should be out in the public. It was suggested that the media of the present time should go back to the earlier and actual vigour of journalism which was based on accuracy and fairness.

The next panelist – Mr. Bijoy Bharathan, Senior Assistant Editor, DT Next, Chennai, suggested that media houses should incorporate the use of new technologies such as artificial intelligence and big data in journalism for actual data mining and fact-checking. It was also stated that the art fraternity should not be left isolated from the electoral politics; rather they can play an indispensable role in spread awareness and information by raising hard questions. For instance, documentaries on genuine issues would draw audiences while educating them about the matter of crucial importance. Similarly, other art forms such as television parody shows, comics and illustrated books have been seen to make a considerable impact abroad, while focusing on issues such as the capability of electoral candidates, conflict and other matters of gravity. India ought to make optimum use of such creative mediums, which would essentially push journalism through new and desirable forms.

Ms Aarthi Kirushnan, a student of B.A Journalism, M.O.P Vaishnav College, Chennai stated that in contemporary times the importance of news media has tapered due to the phenomenon of fake news. To counter this,  more fact-checking institutions should be set-up and taken into consideration, in order to end propagation of mis-information. The goal should be to bring back journalism to its core objective, that is, bring back authentic fact-based reporting and project information-based reality, which would benefit the general public.

Plenary Session III was a Panel Discussion on the Role of NGOs in Electoral Politics, which was chaired by Dr. Swarna Rajagopalan, Political analyst, Writer and Consultant; Founder, Chaitanya – The Policy Consultancy, Chennai; and Founder and Managing Trustee, The Prajnya Trust, Chennai.

Dr. Uma Ramachandran, Senior Research Manager, Environment and Climate Change, IFMR Lead was the first panelist in this session. It was described how governments are not yet mature enough to understand and incorporate several crucial issues. Environmental concerns caught the serious attention of governments worldwide after much delay. To tackle such issues, NGOs through integrated association, both domestically and internationally, can indulge in advocacy pertaining to environmental conservation and dealing with climate change.

The second speaker of the panel, Ms. Kirthi Jayakumar, Founder & CEO, Red Elephant Foundation, emphasized on how NGOs can bring about greater inclusion of gender issues in electoral politics. One major task that NGOs can achieve in electoral politics is to analyse and make known the perception of a political party towards gender issues. Focus can also be given on gender representation in political parties. This would spread awareness among the public about how egalitarian a party really is. NGOs can also redefine settings for movements addressing the concerns of the general public and hence, aid them in making their voices heard.

Dr. Ashik J. Bonofer, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Madras Christian College (MCC)- the third panelist, stated that due to several official and legal constraints NGOs are not able to capitalize their own potential in creating awareness amongst people. He also mentioned how in the current scenario,  amidst the unprivileged sections of society, there is massive ignorance among the youth on political parties, political motives and agendas. The advent of smartphones has made such sections more vulnerable towards fake news. The lower sects of society, due to financial constraints, become prey to the political parties populist moves of donations through different systems. Hence, the task of NGOs to enhance awareness among the people becomes challenging. When such NGOs and activists get involved in political matters, they become victims of the ire of political leaders.

Plenary Session IV was a Panel Discussion on Synergizing Efforts of Think Tanks and Civil Society Organizations. which was chaired by Cmde R. S. Vasan, Director, C3S.

Col. Hariharan, Member, C3S began the discussion by stating that having a common vision is the most important key for synergizing the efforts of think tanks and civil society organizations. Hence, to obtain this synergy think tanks and civil society organizations must conduct a self-assessment, realise their vision and mission, and then look for common areas of interest. Accordingly, they should plan and then go ahead in executing their vision. The key to the success of organizations is to remain relevant to the ground realities and hence, the think tanks and civil society organizations should strive towards it. Mr. Vivien Massot, Conseiller du Commerce Extérieur de la France (CCEF) & Managing Director, TAC ECONOMICS, India, stated how such synergy could be achieved by employing various sources of data to substantiate and supplement economic analysis. The third panelist, Mr. Arjun Sundar, Graduate of M.A International Relations, Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Madras; and Member, Young Minds of C3S,  emphasized on how civil society organizations and think tanks can synergize their efforts by taking youth aspirations into consideration. These aspirations vary from economy to employment, education to entrepreneurship and also include sports. Think tanks can conduct an analysis of different initiatives taken up by political parties in these sectors, evaluate their effectiveness and suggest recommendations to further impact of such policy initiatives, Think tanks can also dwell on questioning why certain policies just remain on paper and are not seeing reality.

All panels were followed by interactive sessions with the audience. A question was asked on the media and think tanks while being distracted with domestic politics and numerous issues within the country of India, can focus on relations with other nations as a point of consideration, while reporting or researching on electoral politics. Mr R. K. Radhakrishnan responded that Pakistan and China are prominent on electoral agendas in India. Similarly, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are focussed on by regional political parties.

The Summing Up and Vote of Thanks was delivered by Dr. Alagu Perumal, Assistant Professor – International Business, Loyola Institute of Business Administration (LIBA), Chennai, Member, C3S. He stated that the conference was able to gather diverse views on the role of think tanks and other civil society organizations in electoral politics. Gratitude was expressed to  C3S, PII, TTCSP, the speakers, scholars and audience for making the conference a success.

(Compiled By: Ms. Anuja Gurele, Research Officer, C3S)

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