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 knew stability required 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 world. And it had to be based on existing, not past realities. Soviet relationship made sense during 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.
His reputation was such 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.”