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Tribute: The guru of strategic writing in India

February 03, 2011 11:03 IST

K Subrahmanyam's legacy will last in the voluminous work he has left behind, his many disciples and his progeny, says TP Sreenivasan

K Subrahmanyam (KS) had no equal in the strategic community of India. No one else had the strategic vision, the intellectual incisiveness, the boldness of approach and the linguistic precision that he had. In fact, he could well be called the guru of strategic writing in India. Many brilliant analysts of today owe many of their qualities and skills to him.

I began to hear about KS in the late '70s, when I worked with a foreign secretary who was himself a strategic thinker. He admired KS very much, but whenever he read a commentary by KS that differed vastly from his own thinking, he would get very irritated and tell me: "You Tamil Brahmins think that you have the monopoly of all wisdom!" My telling him each time that I was neither Tamil nor Brahmin did not make much of an impression on him. The foreign secretary concerned was making an effort to modify our nuclear posture to some extent at that time and what irritated him was the adamant position of KS. The problem was that KS had greater credibility with the public and even the political leadership than the bureaucracy had.

What struck me most about KS's writings was the authority with which he laid out his point of view. He did not have the habit of beating around the bush when presenting the case or being ambivalent in his conclusions. His mastery of the subject and its background was evident and his conclusions were categorical. He may have proved wrong in his predictions at times, but that did not deter him from asserting his position the next time he analysed a problem.

KS was one of the early champions of India acquiring a nuclear deterrent for its security and he was a staunch opponent of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test ban Treaty. He came to represent India's strong position on the issue of nuclear disarmament, based on total elimination of nuclear weapons rather than arms control and non-proliferation. His essays articulated the Indian position in an unambiguous manner and opposed any move to dilute it by professional diplomats in the name of practical politics.

Perhaps, the most outstanding contribution that KS made to Indian strategic thinking was the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan for nuclear disarmament, presented to the United Nations General Assembly in 1988. This was the first comprehensive plan for nuclear disarmament within a specific timeframe. The nuclear weapon States dismissed it as impractical and violative of their fundamental security doctrine and did not even give it any attention.

Many years later, close to the year 2010, in which the world would have been free of nuclear weapons if the Action Plan was adopted, some key Western strategic thinkers mentioned the Action Plan as a contribution to the journey towards global zero.

At international conferences and seminars on disarmament, the voice of KS was the powerful voice of India just as the voice of V K Krishna Menon was in the decolonisation forums in an earlier era. Even when he did not hold any official position, there was never any doubt that he articulated Indian policy logically and with precision.

He was a nightmare for Western strategic thinkers, whose arguments were torn to shreds by his eloquence and reasoning. In the weeks and months following the nuclear tests of 1998, he travelled around the world to assert India's right to guarantee for itself a secure future against nuclear blackmail and threat. His intellectual brilliance was such that he could stand up to any strategic thinker in the world and win the debate. I vividly recall how he quoted chapter and verse from Gandhiji to counter the arguments of an acknowledged authority on Gandhiji, who asserted that if Gandhiji was alive, he would have opposed the nuclear tests.

More than any other individual or institution, KS provided continuity and credibility to India's strategic thinking, transcending political parties and leaders. Rajiv Gandhi, Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh followed his advice as much as I K Gujral and Atal Bihari Vajpayee did. He spelt out and articulated Indian policy for successive prime ministers.

The India-US nuclear deal marked a turning point in KS's strategic career. Some were surprised that he embraced the deal and helped to negotiate it, given the ferocity of his arguments for India's total freedom in nuclear policy. KS became the strongest advocate of the nuclear deal and convinced the Indian intelligentsia of the essential wisdom of finding a way to end the nuclear apartheid against India.

After having been a fierce critic of American policy for half a century, he became a supporter of President Bush's vision of nuclear cooperation with India. Some even suggested that he might have been influenced by his son, Jaishankar, who was the key person for the US in the foreign office at that time. The US officials must have been greatly relieved that they had KS on their side during the crucial negotiations on the deal.

KS recognised the absolute necessity of integrating defence policy with foreign policy and he was as adept in foreign policy formulations and advocacy as he was in spelling out defence and nuclear policy. The nuclear doctrine he helped to establish as the convenor of the first National Security Advisory Board harmonised India's foreign policy with its nuclear posture. He was considered a hawk when it came to China and Pakistan, but his foreign policy recommendations were entirely pragmatic. He provided rare insights into the policies of Pakistan and China and helped the political leadership to respond to them in a measured and determined manner.

Successive governments turned to KS to study events and to analyse past failures with a view to suggesting remedial measures. His work on the India-Pakistan war of 1971 and the Kargil war are shining examples of his thorough and masterly way of bringing out the truth and suggesting a way forward. He was the founder director of the Institute Defence Studies and Analyses, which is the leading think tank in India. He did not claim monopoly over wisdom and listened patiently to young researchers and analysts and encouraged them to reach their own conclusions.

Many will not remember that KS was an IAS officer, since he turned to strategic thinking and writing early in his career and avoided running diverse departments of the government. He used his assignments in the government to build up expertise on defence, security and foreign policies.

It is when giants like KS pass away that one regrets that modern science has not yet found a way to preserve the vast knowledge and wisdom of people like him after they are gone. But his legacy will last in the voluminous work he has left behind, his many disciples and his progeny. I have had the privilege of working with his son, Jaishankar, who is now ambassador in China and his grandson, Dhruva Jaishankar, when he was with the Brookings Institution in Washington, who have already demonstrated the same analytical and writing skills.

T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador of India to the United Nations, Vienna, and a former Governor for India at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna. He is currently the Director General, Kerala International Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, and a Member of the National Security Advisory Board

TP Sreenivasan