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Global think tanks want Indian biz leaders
Suveen K Sinha in New Delhi
April 03, 2009

When the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the global think tank, first invited Sunil Mittal to join its board of trustees last October, the Bharti Group chairman was not immediately enthused. "I'm not a typical think tank kind of a person," he says.

Other than that, he also had a query; he wanted to discuss upfront if he would be required to make a financial contribution. None, he was told, Carnegie wasn't seeking any from him.

It was then that Mittal began to discover Carnegie, its 99-year-old history, and its work as a private, non-profit organisation advancing cooperation among nations and international engagements by the United States.

Mittal is the first Indian to join Carnegie's board of trustees, a list that has in the past had names like Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld. Kofi Annan is still there.

As Mittal joined the board last Friday, the president of the Endowment, Jessica T Mathews, said: "As we transform the Endowment into the first multinational -- and ultimately global -- think tank to find solutions to increasingly global problems, I can think of few better people than Sunil to help us achieve that goal."

Under its New Vision launched on February 6, 2007, Carnegie has added operations in Beijing, Beirut and Brussels to its long-standing offices in Moscow and Washington.

As Indian businesses have acquired global prominence, the men behind them have come to take positions on various international bodies. For long, they were confined to business councils set up jointly with various countries, advisory boards and universities. But, in recent years, they have begun to join the core of global think tanks that shape the global agenda and influence the way countries interact.

According to Mrityunjay B Athreya, management advisor and formerly a professor at Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, this should have happened earlier. "India's brand image has been rising. It is in their (think tanks') interest to ask Indians to join them. What is happening is not surprising at all."

Ratan Tata, chairman of Tata Sons, the holding company of Tata Group, is on the board of trustees of RAND Corporation, the California-based, non-profit research organisation that addresses the challenges facing the public and private sectors across the world.

Reliance Industries [Get Quote] Chairman Mukesh Ambani and Bajaj Auto's [Get Quote] Rahul Bajaj are on the international advisory council of The Brookings Institution. The Washington-based organisation conducts independent research and, based on that, seeks to provide recommendations that strengthen American democracy, foster economic and social welfare, security and opportunity for Americans, and secure a more open, safe, prosperous and cooperative international system.

Tarun Das, who has for decades been the driving force behind Confederation of Indian Industry, or CII, is with the Aspen Institute, whose mission is to foster value-based leadership and improve society.

He is also involved with East West Center, an education and research organisation established by the US Congress in 1960 to strengthen relations and understanding among the peoples and nations of Asia, the Pacific, and the United States.

"It is a new phenomenon," says Das. "They are reaching out to India. It is recognition of India's performance."

These think tanks, attracted by India's thriving democracy and multi-ethnic character, provide a forum to make the world listen to India.

"Global bodies have a lot of miscommunication about India. They have a lot of representation from China, but till now India was hardly represented. Now there are more Indians on these boards," says Das.

To the world, Asia is -- still -- largely East Asia. India's presence on these bodies helps the country get connected. Says R Gopalakrishnan, executive director of Tata Sons, "This is part of India's long-standing quest. India is increasingly getting connected with the rest of the world."

Mittal, for instance, hopes to carry India's message everywhere and highlight issues facing the subcontinent. He would like to talk about difficult geo-political position of India, surrounded as it is by strife-torn neighbours.

"Carnegie can start working on some of these issues, make people sit up and notice India's efforts," he says. A member of former British Prime Minster Tony Blair's climate change initiative, Mittal would also focus on the climate.

Already, Aspen has set up an India chapter, bringing along the skills of leadership development to the country. Mittal expects Carnegie to start in India some time. The country is very much on its radar.

But how about a global think tank based in India? Would Mittal like to start one? Not really, he says, but adds: "We would like to offer support if someone is starting one."

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