K. Subrahmanyam: A Tribute

For almost 40 years, his far-reaching influence over India's strategic thinking came not from a title but through the power of his ideas.


K. Subrahmanyam, who died at the age of 82 in New Delhi, on Feb. 2, 2011, was the doyen of India’s strategic community. India’s Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, described him to The Hindu as "an outstanding public servant, visionary and thinker who will be missed by the generations … who were inspired and influenced by his thoughts."

He founded India’s Institute of Defense Studies and Analysis (IDSA) in 1968 and served as its director until 1975.  After serving as the chairman of India’s Joint Intelligence Committee and the secretary in the Ministry of Defense responsible for defense production, Subrahmanyam returned to lead the Institute in 1980 until he retired in 1986. He continued to write and speak prolifically on strategic issues in India in retirement.

For almost 40 years, his real influence came not from a title or government post but through the power of his ideas and the vigor of his intellect. The discipline of strategic writing and analysis in India emerged and grew under his influence. A sharp and forceful thinker and writer, he also mentored many of India’s leading strategic thinkers. In discussion and debate he was formidable, and his mastery over facts and details would invariably leave a profound impression on those who interacted with him for the first time.

Subrahmanyam’s life and influence is testament to the power that clear ideas and argumentation can wield in a democracy. His role in shaping policy and strategic thinking in India only grew throughout his lifetime, even though he never held an office of critical responsibility within the government during his last three decades. He was seen and accepted as an expert across the political spectrum and successive prime ministers and their key aides turned to him for advice and counsel.

He was guided by a hard-headed appreciation of power and its role in contemporary affairs. This was combined with a passionate commitment to the dream of India’s "tryst with destiny" as articulated in 1947 by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in a speech marking the country’s moment of independence; Subrahmanyam was then just 18. When he first began discussing and analyzing the role and importance of hard power in India, it was something new — a marked contrast to the prevailing framework of idealism that marked the country’s peaceful freedom movement, a time when politicians and activists espoused the high moral principles of peaceful coexistence, distance from power blocs and universal disarmament. Subrahmanyam’s prodding role was timely. The consequences of India’s neglect of hard power were clear in the border conflict of 1962.

He came to champion India’s right to acquire strategic capabilities, including nuclear capabilities. When India became nuclear in 1998, he argued for responsibility and restraint. The principles he articulated of "no first use" and having only a minimum credible deterrent are today part of India’s nuclear doctrine.

He was also one of the earliest and strongest proponents of closer ties between India and the United States. He was ahead of the curve in seeing the growing convergence of interests anchored in our shared commitment to the values of democracy and open markets. The characterization in 2010 by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Barack Obama of the India-U.S. relationship as "one of the defining partnerships of this century" is an outcome for which Subrahmanyam worked tirelessly over his last decade, even as he battled cancer and other ailments.

I had the good fortune of working with him as a young Foreign Service officer and knew him closely for 30 years. He represented the best in the Indian scholastic tradition in being genuinely indifferent to creature comforts, wealth, formal recognition, and positions. He enjoyed living in the world of ideas and had little patience for small talk. When a visiting scholar asked him what exercise he did to keep fit, he responded with the quip, "jumping to conclusions"! He was also truly democratic in his outlook. If you disagreed with him he would argue and debate fiercely, but treated you as an equal and expected you to respond as one, and if you did, he respected you for it. In this, he embodied a refreshing contrast to the prevailing ethos of strong hierarchies demanding deference to rank and to traditional discomfort with debate and clear articulation of differences.

He had great moral and intellectual courage and was willing to go against the tide. He gladly paid the price for standing out on more than one occasion, without ever expressing any regrets.

Few who only saw his writings and heard him speak at seminars in recent years could have imagined the continuous, painful, and difficult struggle he had with cancer and the extraordinary willpower and tenacity that he displayed in coping with it and still being so productive and prolific. In my visits to India as ambassador serving overseas over the last five years, I would inquire from mutual friends about the state of his health — before I knew it, we were often meeting for a spirited discussion over lunch or dinner.

He was a giant of a man. India will miss him.

<p> Meera Shankar is India's ambassador to the United States. </p>