Journalist | Writer | Analyst
3 February 2010
Strategic thinker par excellence
Intellectual progenitor of the Indian nuclear weapons programme and by far the most influential strategic thinker of his own and subsequent generations, K. Subrahmanyam’s enduring contribution was the coherent intellectual framework he helped provide for the country’s foreign and security policies in a world buffeted by uncertainty and changing power equations.
He died in New Delhi on Wednesday after a courageous battle against cancer. He was 82.
In a long and distinguished career that began with his entry into the Indian Administrative Service in 1951, Subrahmanyam straddled the fields of administration, defence policy, academic research and journalism with an unparalleled felicity. His prolific writings — contained in thousands of newspaper articles (including in The Hindu), book chapters and speeches over four decades — touched upon a broad range of global and regional strategic issues and invariably generated fierce debate in India and abroad. But it was his early — and even controversial — advocacy of India exercising the option to produce nuclear weapons that made governments and scholars around the world sit up and take notice of his views.
Subrahmanyam’s first formal involvement with the Indian nuclear establishment began in 1966 when, as a relatively junior bureaucrat in the Defence Ministry, he was asked to join an informal committee tasked by the Prime Minister’s Office with studying the strategic, technical and financial implications of a nuclear weapons programme. Soon thereafter, he was made director of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), a post he held from 1968 to 1975. He was one of the first analysts to sense a strategic opportunity for India in the emerging crisis in East Pakistan and his public articulation of this well before the 1971 war led Pakistani officials to see him eventually as a Chanakya-like figure who managed to contrive their country’s dismemberment.
Born in Tiruchi on January 19, 1929, Subrahmanyam returned to his home state of Tamil Nadu to serve as Home Secretary during the period of the Emergency. An honest and upright administrator, he considered the Constitution and the liberties it embodied to be of higher value than the political directives of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the Congress party. At a time when his counterparts elsewhere in the country became willing accomplices to the suspension of civil liberties, Subrahmanyam used his powers to shield those being targeted. Many years later, during the Gujarat carnage of 2002, he was one of the few members of the strategic community to write about how the country would pay a heavy price if it failed to uphold the rule of law and the right to life of all its citizens.
He returned to Delhi in the late 1970s and ended up working as Secretary, Defence Production during Indira Gandhi’s second tenure as Prime Minister. Differing again with the government on an issue of principle, Subrahmanyam was eased out of the Ministry of Defence and returned to the IDSA as director. Though intended as a punishment posting, he took to his new assignment as a duck to water. Through his efforts, the institute emerged as India’s premier think-tank with a large number of scholars, many on secondment from the armed forces, conducting research on defence and foreign policy issues.
After retiring from the government in 1987, Subrahmanyam continued to write on security matters, eventually joining the Times of India as a consulting editor. Journalism was in many ways his true calling. Affectionately known by his colleagues as “Bomb Mama”, in reality Subrahmanyam was far from being a nuclear hawk. He wrote on a range of issues, including on spiritual and religious matters and loved nothing more than to discuss national and global issues with his younger colleagues.
He was in favour of India acquiring nuclear weapons and argued forcefully during the international negotiations on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty against India’s accession. At a seminar in Washington at the time, he famously denounced American critics of India’s stand as the ‘Ayatollahs of Nonproliferation on the Potomac’.
And yet, he did not believe it was absolutely essential for the country to conduct an actual weapons test. When Pokhran-II came finally in May 1998, Subrahmanyam was taken by surprise but accepted that the government’s hand had been forced by the manner in which the United States had tried to foreclose the country’s nuclear option. At the same time, he said that India should immediately announce that it would never be the first to use nuclear weapons, a position the Vajpayee government accepted.
After the Kargil war, he headed the Kargil Review Committee which was tasked with recommending an overhaul of the Indian national security and intelligence apparatus whose failings had allowed Pakistani soldiers to occupy high altitude posts in Jammu and Kashmir. Besides a host of systemic reforms, Subrahmanyam argued in favour of India establishing a National Security Council but was disappointed by the structure of the institution that the National Democratic Alliance regime created. He nevertheless agreed to head the first National Security Advisory Board and was also instrumental in the NSAB’s formulation of India’s Draft Nuclear Doctrine.
A realist in his strategic thinking, Subrahmanyam was one of the first to understand and discuss what the emergence of a multipolar world order – his preferred term was “polycentric” — meant for Indian foreign policy. He argued that India had the capacity to improve its relations with all global power centres. At the same time, he sought to leverage American interest in India’s rise by pressing for the removal of restrictions on nuclear and high-tech commerce.
He also believed the emergence of an economically interdependent world meant the era of military conflict between the great powers was a thing of the past and that economic growth and internal strength would be far more important determinants of national power than mere military might.
For one who worked in government for many years, Subrahmanyam prized his independence which he saw as the key to his integrity. I have had three careers, he once said when asked why he had turned down the offer of a Padma Vibhushan — as a civil servant, a strategic analyst and a journalist. “The awards should be given by the concerned groups, not the Government. If there is an award for sports, it should be given by sportspersons, and if it’s for an artist, by artists”. The state, he believed, was not qualified to judge different aspects of human endeavour.
Subrahmanyam, of course, excelled in all his endeavours. True to form, his most creative period as an analyst came after he was diagnosed with cancer. In his death, India has lost one of its most perceptive strategic minds. The void will be impossible to fill.
He is survived by his wife, Sulochana, his daughter Sudha and his three sons, Vijay Kumar, Jaishankar and Sanjay.