K Subrahmanyam

The man who made strategy

Krishnaswamy Subrahmanyam, doyen of modern Indian strategic thinkers passed away on Feb 2nd, 2011, at the age of 82. Rich tributes have been written by those who knew him. Unlike them, I did not know him face-to-face. I knew him only by the occasional e-mail.

To me he was Bhishma Pitamaha and Chanakya personified due to his unwavering focus on Indian security and his vast knowledge of statecraft. He left a deep impact on my thinking about strategic matters.

Meera Shankar, India’s ambassador to the United States, writes that Subrahmanyam was inspired as youth by Jawaharlal Nehru’s “Tryst with destiny” speech. Soon after, at a young age, he stood first in the 1951 batch of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). We don’t know about his personal life, but P R Chari, director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, recalls that Subrahmanyam put himself through college and took care of his siblings. He must have been outstanding in his state cadre, for he was then moved to New Delhi. After that there was no looking back. Over a career spanning the next two-and-half decades, he dominated the Indian strategic discourse with his clear thinking and level-headed decisions on matters of national interest. His professional achievements are too well known to bear repetition here.

Subrahmanyam was not only encyclopedic in his knowledge, but distinguished himself by willingly sharing it. He was a realist, but his realism was drawn from the ancient wellspring of Bhishma’s teachings in the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata, and not any recent Western thinkers. While he was familiar with the writings of contemporary scholars of international affairs, he was conscious of their limited applicability to the Indian situation.

He was singularly driven in his quest to advance Indian interests. His forte was strategic decision making at national level, way before it became a discipline. As Rory Medcalf, an Australian diplomat & scholar notes, Subrahmanyam taught without appearing to teach. And every sishya of his felt he had his undivided attention—the mark of a real guru.

The 1960s were a tumultuous decade in which India saw three wars on two borders, lost two prime ministers, had a massive currency devaluation and saw the nuclear ground shifting from beneath its feet. The question earlier in the ‘50s was when—not if—India would test nuclear weapons. The ‘60s saw China race ahead with its nuclear tests and, to add to the insecurity, the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was being pushed. It was in those uncertain times that the K Subrahmanyam lighthouse illuminated the path for India’s strategy.

His accomplishments were many, but three stand out. First, he ensured that India’s scientists had the time to develop expertise, and allow the political leadership to exercise the nuclear option, by advocating that India keep out of NPT. Second, he ensured that the military threat on western borders was minimised, by championing an Indian intervention in East Pakistan. Third, he envisaged the end of stifling technology sanctions regime slapped against India after the 1974 nuclear tests by throwing his weight behind the India-US nuclear deal. He thus worked to ensure that the tryst did not turn into a mirage.

There is no direct evidence of a grand strategy of the modern Indian independence movement. There is no single document that describes the endeavour. However one can infer from the speeches, writings and actions of a pantheon of national leaders like Tilak, Gokhale, Gandhi, and Nehru that there were three goals of the movement. The primary goal was to end colonial rule and get rid of the British. The secondary goal was to create a modern Indian state and reclaim its status prior to the beginning of the colonial era. The tertiary goal was to prevent further fragmentation of the subcontinent.

Mr Subrahmanyam belonged to the generation that implemented the second and third goals, which remain works in progress. One can understand his world view through this prism. The support for the nuclear option is part of the creation of the modern Indian state and the power that goes with it. Modern India was not to be subject to coercion ever again. His support for Indian interests by tilting towards the Soviet Union was due to the United States’ support for Pakistan and later China. Subsequently, when the Soviet Union collapsed he rightly concluded that India needs to remove the United States’ misperception of India that plagued the 1990s. In the new millennium, when the Bush administration offered the nuclear deal he set about convincing India to seize the opportunity.

Subrahmanyam saw knowledge as the currency of power in this century (See Pragati, Issue 14, May 2008). For the last two years he had been arguing for India to accelerate the development of a knowledge economy that would develop synergy with the United States and take the strategic partnership to the next stage. He foresaw that the United States-demographic shift would require Indian knowledge resources if it is to retain competitiveness. He also advocated good governance as a way to reduce disparity and dissipate the million mutinies inside India.

It would be a fitting tribute to follow through with these ideas and realise his resolve to ensure that the tryst with destiny happens. While we remember him in words, we must remain true to the essence of his analytical approach as much as to his teachings.

He will be missed, but lives on through his disciples.