NEW DELHI: It was 1977. A group of senior bureaucrats were debating the fate of Pakistan president Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Naresh Chandra, former cabinet secretary remembers saying he thought Bhutto would be let off after Saudi Arabia pleaded for his life. K. Subrahmanyam disagreed. "Zia has no choice but to execute him," he said. He was right
Subrahmanyam, ("Subbu" to everyone) who died on Wednesday just turned 82. But when faced with his fiercely forceful personality, the last thought in your mind was his age. Many famous commentators, analysts and strategic experts from around the world have been reduced to gibbering when he successfully cut through their intellectual arguments
. As India evolved in the past couple of decades, Subrahmanyam was out there, leading the strategic thought brigade. "We have lost our foremost strategic analyst," said Ronen Sen
, former envoy to the US.
His years as a civil servant, he was secretary, defence production, head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, among others, gave him an intimate knowledge of India's external security matrix. But his reputation was primarily as India's "strategic guru" and that's how he will be remembered. K. Subrahmanyam never said what you expected him to say. He could silence your uninformed rambling with a withering look and a caustic remark that was little short of devastating. In the next moment though, he could turn around and graciously acknowledge an intellectual hit
. Raja Mohan, journalist, who counted Subrahmanyam as his mentor, said, "Subbu never suffered fools, but equally entertained no rancour or malice". Ronen Sen said, "What I valued was his ability to listen which were a function of his fine human qualities."
He would happily engage you in discussion even if you held a view that was the polar opposite of his. And it didn't matter whether you were the national security adviser or a junior reporter trying to soak in complex strategy. Subbu was committed to educating Indians about the importance of strategic thought. It led him to drive long distances to talk to JNU students in the 1970s. The same spirit of education prompted him to write reams in major newspapers and lecture at innumerable seminars even when he was quite ill, to teach Indians how to respond to international events
Inder Malhotra, journalist, and one of Subbu's close buddies recalls how George Tanham, ( RAND Corporation) came to see Subbu when he was doing a study on Indian strategic thought. Subbu told him, "What can I say about something that doesn't exist?" It would take a few more years for Manmohan Singh to articulate the same complaint in despair. That's what Subbu sought to change. Through his articles and studies he whittled away at Indians' strategic naivete, regarding it as a national weakness
. Swaminathan Aiyar brought in Subrahmanyam as a journalist into The Economic Times
. "Many journalists have trouble coming out with even two column ideas in a week, but Subrahmanyam wanted to write almost every day, so wide was his repertoire and so deep his enthusiasm. I once asked how he came up with so many ideas. He replied "It's easy. I just have to watch CNN or BBC and I get so angry that I have several things to say!" In 2005, Manmohan Singh commissioned Subrahmanyam to head a task force on India's strategic development. It would be his last official report but it remains a classified document
. In an interview to online magazine, Pragati, Subrahmanyam said, "We have not fully thought through the notion of our foreign policy reflecting our rising status. I have said that knowledge is the currency of power in this century. The task force on global strategic developments that I headed also points out the same
As the first convener of the newly constituted National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) Subrahmanyam led the effort to formally articulate India's nuclear doctrine, which was formally accepted by the NDA government.
It was Subrahmanyam who first articulated India's discomfort with the global nuclear regime under NPT, which he believed was unfair and against India's interests, calling it "nuclear apartheid
". One of his self-confessed happier moments of modern Indian history was the 1998 nuclear tests.
But six years hence, Subrahmanyam was also the first to endorse a nuclear deal with the US, countering stiff opposition from erstwhile supporters. For all those who had labeled him "pro-Soviet" in earlier years, he was now "Mr USA". Subbu shrugged off all such badges. He was a democrat at heart, and some of his most difficult years was during Indira Gandhi's emergency. As home secretary, Tamil Nadu, (he was shunted off), Subbu refused to obey a number of her draconian orders. But the same Subbu counted December 16, 1971 when Bangladesh was created, as one of Mrs Gandhi's greatest achievements
For the last decade, Subrahmanyam battled several debilitating illnesses - dismissively. He would be in hospital one day, and the next, be the first to arrive at a seminar on nuclear deterrence, looking impatient. C. Uday Bhaskar, who worked with him, recalls having to tell him, "Subbu Sir, please don't come so early. You make everyone uncomfortable."
Personally, Subrahmanyam never much cared for the attributes of the power circle, which is so attractive to many of his peers. He wore his austerity naturally, even once sending his son back home in a bus refusing him a lift in the official car.
Subbu's regret, if he had any, would probably be that the Indian bureaucratic and political system was so ossified as to be impervious to new ideas. The Kargil Committee Report may have been released but both NDA and UPA governments have sat on 17 annexures __ they contain a wealth of historical evidence about the inside story of India's nuclear weapons programme, as told by the protagonists. Even Manmohan Singh has failed to make public the report of his task force on India's strategic development
. As Subbu himself observed, it would take time for India's strategists to take in these ideas. But it will be longer in the absence of the report.
1. Born January 1929
2. Joined IAS (Tamil Nadu cadre), 1951
3. Deputy Secretary, Ministry of Defence, 1962-65.
4. Rockefeller Fellow in Strategic Studies, London School of Economics, 1966-67.
5. Director, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, 1968-75.
6. Home Secretary, Tamil Nadu, 1976-77.
7. Chairman, Joint Intelligence Committee and Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, 1977-79.
8. Secretary (Defence Production), Ministry of Defence, 1979-80.
9. Director, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, 1980-87.
10. Jawaharlal Nehru Visiting Professor, St John's College, Cambridge, UK, 1987-88. Nehru Fellow, 188-90.
11. Consulting Editor, Business and Political Observer, 1990-92.
12. Consulting Editor, the Economic Times, 1992-94. Consluting Editor, The Times of India and The Economic Times, 1994-2004.
13. Member, UN Secretary-General's expert group on the Indian Ocean, 1974.
14. Member, UN intergovernmental exper group on Disarmament and Development, 1980-82.
15. Chairman, UN study group on Nuclear Deterrence, 1986.
16. Convenor, National Security Advisory Board.
17. Chairman, Kargil Review Panel.
K. Subrahmanyam (1929-2011)- the dean of Indian strategy
February 02, 2011First Published: 21:53 IST(2/2/2011)
Last Updated: 21:56 IST(2/2/2011)
K. Subrahmanyam, a man often referred to as the dean of Indian strategy, passed away on Wednesday. No other individual was so strongly identified, at home and abroad, as the face of Indian foreign and defence policy. In the days when India was seen as an economic basketcase and a marginal player in the international system, Subrahmanyam spoke and wrote for years on the need for India to think and act like a great power. It must have been a matter of pleasure that in the last years of his life that the economy began to show an ability to match his vision
Says Ambassador Arundhati Ghose, “While we looked only at present crises, Subbu pushed people to think strategically. He saw ahead of most of us and had an incredible ability to see forward
He is best known for his advocacy of an Indian nuclear deterrent going back to years when this was a minority position in the country. Subrahmanyam was a thoughtful nationalist. He pointed out the dangers of signing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but urged India keep its nuclear stockpile small
. He wanted Pakistan to develop its own nuclear weapons, but successfully made the case for India to adopt a no first use policy.Subrahmanyam sought to construct security policies for India that were crafted to fit the strategic environment India faced. An Indian strategy could not be based on aping the West or following ideologies of third worldism. And it had to be based on existing, not past realities. The Soviet relationship made sense during the Cold War, he argued. A strong US link was logical after it
.Because Subrahmanyam insisted strategy had to be all about a careful weighing of India’s interests, he was prepared to debate and explain his point of view with anyone
. Says Professor Amitabh Mattoo of Jawaharlal Nehru University, “He had all the qualities of a great guru. He was completely egalitarian, willing to explain his case and hear you out.”
He served the state in many different varieties as an IAS officer including secretary defence production and chairman of the joint intelligence committee. Later, he saw himself as a journalist and public speaker on India’s foreign and defence policy, identifying himself with civil society so strongly he declined a Padma Bhushan in 1999.
Such was his reputation that in the 1984 hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight to Lahore, the hijackers
tried to argue during their trial that Subrahmanyam’s presence on the aircraft proved New Delhi had engineered the whole thing so he could “examine Pakistan’s nuclear installations.”
What I note in all these tributes his clarity of thought about Indian and its future and not confused with daily problems. He also understood the varying threats and how they needed to be countered.
Knowledge economy is the next step and that is what he recommended in his strategy report. Hats off for his apporach to information release.