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Empires of the mind

In strategic affairs,no one had more influence on PM than K. Subrahmanyam

Written by Sanjaya Baru |
February 8, 2012 2:01:29 am

In strategic affairs,no one had more influence on PM than K. Subrahmanyam

Last week,on the occasion of the first death anniversary of the Bhishmapithamaha of modern Indian strategic thought,the late K. Subrahmanyam,this newspaper paid tribute to him by publishing posthumously his last essays on India’s grand strategy.

Subrahmanyam was no ivory tower academic or a retired civil servant unleashing pent-up wisdom on the public. In service and after,he was actively engaged in scholarly debates,public discourse and offered policy advice on matters pertaining to defence and nuclear strategy,national security and governance. I saw him do this as the head of a think-tank,then as a media analyst and finally as an adviser to the prime minister.

Subrahmanyam’s views were sought and seriously considered by successive prime ministers,from Indira Gandhi to Manmohan Singh. Given his academic bent of mind,Singh always turned to thinking persons for advice on all policy matters,and in the realm of strategic affairs and foreign policy no one had more influence on him than Subrahmanyam.

When drafting his first major speech as PM on “India and the World”,for the Hindustan Times Summit in November 2004,Singh asked me to consult with Subrahmanyam. The final text (available on the PMO website is a mix of the thinking of the PM himself and of Subrahmanyam.

Singh’s second major public speech on India’s grand strategy was delivered at the India Today Conclave on February 25,2005. Taken together,the two speeches set out what strategic affairs analyst C. Raja Mohan later dubbed as the “Manmohan Singh Doctrine” — (a) that the changing weight of India in the global economy is a factor shaping its weight in global affairs; (b) that new opportunities have now become available to India as a consequence of its economic growth and openness,enabling it to improve relations with all major powers; (c) that India’s openness and globalisation now made it possible to deepen South-South relations and relations with South and Southeast Asian neighbours through regional integration; and (d) that as an open society and an open economy India can build bridges with the world on the foundations of its democratic,liberal,plural and secular credentials.

These four elements of the Manmohan Singh Doctrine,so to speak,gel with Subrahmanyam’s vision of India’s “grand strategy”.

Encouraged by the positive response to his worldview both at home and abroad,Singh chose to take this vision to the leadership of India’s armed forces when he addressed the Combined Commander’s Conference in October 2005. His first address to them as PM,in October 2004,was drafted by the then national security adviser J.N. Dixit. That speech was never made public and only a sanitised version full of inanities was released to the media that,understandably,ignored it.

However,in preparing his second address,he sought Subrahmanyam out. I was given the task of taking the PM’s own notes to Subrahmanyam,to his modest DDA flat in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj,and bringing the latter’s handwritten drafts back to the PM. The final speech was a mix of the two wise men’s thoughts,my only contribution being the quote from Kautilya’s Arthashastra,which reminded the defence services that “From the strength of the treasury the army is born”!

Given the importance of the text,I was convinced that at least this speech should not get converted into an inane press release and that the nation and the world must be made aware of the PM’s views. The PM agreed and the full text was published.

Drawing on Subrahmanyam’s views on India’s “grand strategy”,Singh summed up: “Our strategy has to be based on three broad pillars: First,to strengthen ourselves economically and technologically; second,to acquire adequate defence capability to counter and rebut threats to our security; and,third,to seek partnerships both on the strategic front and on the economic and technological front to widen our policy and developmental options.”

Every major initiative that Singh was able to take,within the constraints of domestic political compulsions,in the past seven years has been in pursuit of this vision.

Subrahmanyam made two major and specific contributions to Singh’s foreign and strategic policy. First,he led the PM’s Task Force on Global Strategic Developments and provided the roadmap for the strategic partnership between India and the United States based on India’s emergence as a “knowledge power”. The core of his ideas in this as yet unpublished report has found public expression in last week’s posthumously published essay. (‘India’s Grand Strategy’,IE,February 3)

Singh and Subrahmanyam were equally persuaded by Winston Churchill’s famous assertion that the “empires of the future will be empires of the mind”. That knowledge,not weapons,is the currency of power in the new world,and India must strengthen the entire pyramid of education,bottom up.

Second,he urged Singh to convene a “Jammu & Kashmir Roundtable” to provide a platform for a domestic dialogue with the widest possible cross-section of public opinion in the state,as a parallel to the bilateral dialogue between Singh and the then Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf. Taken together,the bilateral dialogue and the roundtable process altered the environment in the state and the region,enabling all concerned to withstand the impact of several terrorist attempts to disrupt the dialogue and peace process,till the dastardly Mumbai attacks of November 2008.

For all his mastery over global affairs and national security,Subrahmanyam always maintained that the biggest hurdles in India’s tryst with destiny were self-imposed and at home. If India gets its domestic policy right,it will secure its place in world affairs.

The writer is director for Geo-economics and Strategy,International Institute for Strategic Studies,and honorary senior fellow,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi,

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