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Our strategic asset

K. Subrahmanyam brought rigour and a forward-looking vision to strategic studies in India.

Written by Inder Malhotra |
February 3, 2011 5:29:35 am

In the death of K. Subrahmanyam at age 82,India has lost its premier and pioneering analyst of strategy and national security,who was a national asset in every sense of the term. As George K. Tanham said in his famous 1992 monograph,Indian Strategic Thought,this is one area in which this country has been conspicuously deficient. (Indeed,this is what KS — Subbu to friends — had told him when Tanham was researching his subject.)

Only after the traumatic border war with China in the high Himalayas did the Indian establishment wake up to the need for strategic studies,until then considered superfluous. KS played a stellar role in filling this glaring and disastrous gap. Even today the bulk of the Indian strategic community consists of those who learnt the craft from him. He has,no wonder,often been called the Bhisham Pitamah of Indian strategic studies.

By the time the first think tank,the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses or IDSA,was established,with a retired major-general as its director,KS was a deputy secretary in the defence ministry. Some time earlier,the founder-director of the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS),Alastair Buchan,had come to this country to look for Indians who might learn something at his organisation. His choice fell on KS and the late Sisir Gupta,who died at a relatively young age. In 1968 Subrahmanyam,an IAS officer of the 1951 batch,was appointed director of IDSA; and since then neither he nor the institute looked back. What he made of the IDSA in seven years won national and international kudos.

In 1975,Indira Gandhi,who appreciated his good work,told him that for the sake of his career he must spend some time in his state,Tamil Nadu,previously called the state of Madras. He arrived there on the day the Karunanidhi ministry was dismissed during the Emergency and president’s rule was imposed. He was appointed home secretary. In this critically important position he absolutely refused to be a party to any of the Emergency’s excesses. For this,a senior Congress MP,O.V. Alagesan,sharply criticised him in Parliament.

In 1978,when he returned to the Union government,Indira Gandhi was out of power and the Janata was ruling. He was appointed chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee and additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat. In that capacity he endorsed the finding of the Research and Analysis Wing,the foreign intelligence agency,that Pakistan’s nuclear programme was no longer peaceful. But he firmly disputed the agency’s belief that our western neighbour had adopted the plutonium route.

As became obvious,KS was right in thinking that Islamabad was using centrifuge technology for uranium enrichment. He also saw to it that a five-year defence estimate was prepared by the JIC and considered by the cabinet. That was the first and the only time that such a thing happened.

When Indira Gandhi was back in power in 1980,KS was defence production secretary and was also presiding over a committee to select the submarine to be introduced in the Indian navy. The new government,for its own reasons,wanted to remove him from this job. He was offered a post,director of the Indian Institute of Public Administration,that did not suit him. Luckily,the prime minister realised that Subbu’s encyclopaedic knowledge of high strategy and matters military could be best used by sending him back to the IDSA as director with the rank of secretary to the Government of India.

To appreciate Subbu’s yeoman services to India,one has to go back to March 1971,when the Bangladesh crisis exploded with the force of the cyclones that abound in that country. At first there was an outcry for immediate military intervention. Then the mood changed and the establishment believed that the Mukti Bahini would liberate Bangladesh,and India need not do anything.

It was KS who fought against this complacent assumption. In a confidential paper,that inevitably leaked,he argued that there was an “opportunity of a lifetime to cut Pakistan to size” that must not be missed. When top officials at the defence ministry objected to such writings,he told them that as head of a research institute he had to be frank and open,and if they felt that officials should not do it,he was prepared to resign from the IAS.

In UN committees and elsewhere,KS defended the

Indian position on the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty,and made no secret of his belief that India must go nuclear. Those in the know are privy to his contribution to the weaponisation of the nuclear programme.

Subbu headed the Kargil Review Committee,whose excellent report has been implemented only partially. Later,Prime Minister Manmohan Singh invited him to chair a task force to formulate Indian policy in the context of the current world order. Sadly,that valuable report,submitted several years ago,remains classified.

Needless to add,Subbu was a prolific writer almost to the very end,and the books he wrote or edited,the papers he presented to national and international gatherings and almost endless newspaper articles penned by him would fill several shelves of a commodious library. He was blessed with a phenomenal memory and an equally prodigious capacity for work. Whenever in doubt about any fact,I rang him up and,as a kind and gracious friend,he gave me the information I needed in a jiffy.

Born in a family with modest means at Tiruchirapalli on January 24,1929,Subbu studied chemistry at Madras,now Chennai,before joining the IAS. His first years were spent in the panchayati raj department in the state; but from his school and college days his interest in matters military was acute. He is survived by his wife,Salochana,three sons and a daughter. One of his sons,Jaishankar,is India’s ambassador to China; the second,Vijay,is a secretary in the Union government; and the third,Sanjay,is a professor at UCLA. Evidently,genes do travel.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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