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Remembering the doyen of strategic thinking in India

By C Uday Bhaskar
February 03, 2011 12:38 IST
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C Uday Bhaskar shares his fond memories of the late K Subrahmanyam, who laid the foundation for strategic thinking in India

We always referred to K Subrahmanyam (KS), doyen of the Indian security and strategic fraternity, as Subbu Sir and it is difficult to think of him in the past tense. But KS is no more. He passed away on Wednesday and till the very end, he was dismissive of his many ailments that included diabetes, cancer and a cardiac condition.

Despite the physical constraints, KS's mind was always ticking and he had that rare ability to link various issues in a 'strategic' context -- and make a swift assessment about the co-relation to India's national interest.  Better known as the director who built the IDSA (Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses), KS was a remarkable individual, given the  time-space continuum he traversed.

Having topped the 1951 batch of the IAS, KS had a variety of options before him but he chose to dedicate his life to the cause of national security and defence, at a time when many of his peers made their way to the United Nations related or other multilateral trade postings abroad.  KS chose to nurture a think-tank outside the government and Sapru House in Delhi became synonymous with Subbu -- and his nuclear tutorials.

After a successful innings in government service -- but yet out of it --   KS retired in 1987 from the IDSA and chose to be a newspaper columnist. The Cold War was coming to an end and KS through his columns educated the layman -- and offered policy options to the government. An advocate of India exercising the nuclear option to protect its core interests, KS was seen as a rabid anti-United States hawk. Often dubbed as bomb-mama by his younger colleagues in the media, the reality was very different.

KS was a nuclear pragmatist who viewed the issue in relation to India's national interest. I  recall many occasions when KS, with his irrefutable logic and phenomenal recall of  nuclear related  events and  Cold War history, would  exasperate his interlocutors -- more often than not US  diplomats and scholars -- about the invalidity  of the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty or why their hectoring was misplaced. Yes, KS could be acerbic when provoked beyond a point -- but he was always right in his recounting of facts and the logic of real politik.

While our generation always looked up to KS as a guru who laid the foundation for strategic thinking in India and nurtured a gene-pool of analysts, he was also a major national security policy architect. Right from the days when he was hand-picked by YB Chavan in the defence ministry after the 1962 Indo-China war -- KS advised the Centre on a range of subjects from aircraft and submarine acquisition to the setting up of the CDM to the country's nuclear posture (he had a riveting account of how he had to hand-deliver a letter from the prime minister to the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission in Mumbai about India's nuclear weapon programme) to the Kargil War review.

A rare civil servant who was able to critique his own service in an objective and constructive manner -- KS advocated subject specialisation for the babu -- but to little avail. In the last decade, KS made two seminal contributions to the national security apex: one on the Kargil Committee Report and the other on Global Strategic Developments. Greater the pity that neither the legislature nor the government has been able to either debate the recommendations or implement them in a determined manner.

C Uday Bhaskar is one of India's leading strategic analysts

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