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Krishnaswamy Subrahmanyam 1929-2011

KSubrahmanyam, who thought and taught strategy for over four Indian decades, passed away on 2 February 2011 in New Delhi. He was 82 in age and timeless in his wisdom of international affairs.

KS led a life of remarkable diversity. He was born in deep south – Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu in January 1929 – but altered a largely-northern New Delhi’s strategic imagination.

His career as a bureaucrat with the elite Indian Administrative Service began in 1951 after a Masters in chemistry. The bureaucrat had spine: during Emergency, while his ilk showed their eagerness to fold up Indian democracy, he refused to partake in its excesses as Home Secretary of Tamil Nadu.

He was an institution himself, built one – the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) at New Delhi – to international acclaim by directing it twice, and nurtured many.  

But was it strategy, not administration, he pioneered. If it was in Indian interest to intervene in West Pakistan during the crisis of 1971, then it must, he suggested. This was an early indicator of his commitment to rework extant abstract moralism which, as he saw it, was difficult to sustain for India in the international arena. Chanakya, they called him.

A strategist must anticipate well. He foresaw the obstacles international nuclear order would create for India over time if it did not weaponize its nuclear program. Subrahmanyam opposed India’s concession to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and supported the bomb.

This was a radical departure but not a rupture. With its civilian and potentially military dimensions, India’s nuclear program was foundationally and perhaps deliberately dualistic. What he did was to turn what was seen as potential but undesirable into possible and necessary. To contribute towards an ethical world, India needed to survive first. For him, ethics was a function of politics. In a neighbourhood eager to radiate, atomic inactivity was naive. Hence the bomb.  

Subrahmanyam knew and kept the difference between government and the nation – clarity rare among bureaucrats. He declined India’s third highest civilian honour – Padma Bhushan – in 1999. It would be inappropriate for a public servant to receive honours from the state, he reasoned.

The Kargil conflict took place that year. Subrahmanyam headed the government’s review committee, which recommended comprehensive intelligence and security reforms. The government responded with measured changes, partial release of the report and a National Security Council (NSC). The NSC’s structure disappointed KS. Having earlier contributed to its weaponization, he now nevertheless headed the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) and shaped the grammar of the arsenal’s projected use. For its size, capabilities and threat perception, India’s minimum credible deterrence posture is unique and intended – substantial credit for which goes to Subrahmanyam.  

A pervading absence of strategic culture had always been a lament of Indians and India specialists. Subrahmanyam thought it was correct but could be changed. No one did more to change that condition. He thought, wrote and spoke of power’s utility and limitations in conceiving Indian national interest.

He guided India’s strategic thinking through two major crises phases. The first resulted from Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s departure and ensuing uncertainty. Nehru’s grand strategy for India was Bismarckian in its temper, if not content – a complexity only its creator could sustain. In retrospect, Subrahmanyam’s clarity of thought was the best possible replacement. The second crisis emerged from structural alterations following the end of Cold War. He was quick to counsel substantial recalibration of India’s regional and global priorities in an emphatically lopsided world. He advocated wholesome engagement with every major international actor while emphasising the need for special relationship with the United States. His support for the civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with the US, which has begun making India a part of the global nuclear order, was a logical dénouement of his strategic vision. ‘Bheeshm Pitamah’ of Indian strategic thinking, they called him.

Subrahmanyam was also a public intellectual, although the strategist in him often affected his public positions on issues such as Kashmir, communalism and other concerns of internal security. In recent past, while battling cancer and diabetes, his writings paid special attention to the link between governance-deficit and crisis of internal security.

The true measure of Subrahmanyam’s contributions may not be his actual influence on Indian nuclear and strategic policy. That was a given. It is the power of what he thought and expressed that will endure. It was this that made him tower above and school three generations of Indian strategists. ‘Swayambhu,’ they called him.  

Institutions were more important than individuals for him; principles more meaningful than personalities. The sincerity and integrity of his oeuvre has created a broader community of international relations students in and of India. Not all will agree with his precepts but none will doubt his intentions.

His was a life well lived. He doesn’t leave a void. But he will be missed. Rest in peace, Mr Subrahmanyam.

Atul Mishra teaches at School of International Studies, Central University of Gujarat, Gandhinagar. Email  

As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy