By PR Chari
How does one spell out one’s recollections of an icon? When Andre Malraux passed away General de Gaulle said in Gaelic hyperbole, “Malraux is dead. France is widowed.” The obituaries pouring into the Indian newspapers echo similar sentiments after Subrahmanyam’s demise following a long battle against his worsening diabetes, cancer and heart disease. India’s strategic community is saying, “Subrahmanyam is dead. India’s strategists are widowed.”
He dominated the national security scene for some six decades. His prolific writings, his leadership of several non-official organizations, and his appointment to various official bodies ensured that. And, yet, it is worth recollecting that he was never made Defense Secretary; indeed, he was moved out of the Government in 1980, and appointed, first as Director of Indian Institute of Public Administration, and then, on his request, as Director of the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses. In that capacity he was often chosen to advise the Government. Strange are the ways of the political leadership and the higher bureaucracy. The Padma Bhushan was conferred on him in later years, and that he spurned, was the Government’s way of salvaging its own conscience. But, it also informed that the Government’s Bhavans can be influenced by molding public opinion. Subrahmanyan was able to do this by his mastery over what might be called ‘campaign academics’ viz. mounting a barrage of writings and presentations in seminars and TV talk shows to hammer home a basic message. No different from Arun Shourie’s brand of ‘campaign journalism.’
Naturally, this gained for him a huge number of acolytes in the armed forces, sections of the media, academia and the Government, who admired his clear, no-nonsense, combative style of debate—no quarter asked or given. But, it also gained him a huge number of critics in these very constituencies, who believed that strategic studies— part of the social sciences— should be hospitable to opposed points of view. Like abroad, especially in Washington—the Mecca of think tanks—those in New Delhi remained divided in their appreciation of Subrahmanyam, with a fairly neat division obtaining between the official and private think tanks, and, further, between those located in South Delhi and North Delhi.
Balzac is reported to have re-read one of his earliest novels, and sighed, “What genius I had then.” This was true of Subrahmanyam. His earliest writings were his best, especially those in which he expatiated on the problems of defense administration like professionalization of the higher command set-up, lacuna in threat and intelligence assessments, defects in weapons selection and procurement issues and so on. Until then these issues were considered secret, and unsuited for public debate. He also developed Emile Benoit’s thesis to argue that expenditure on defense and development was complementary, and not competing with each other. It amounted to an argument to allocate more for defense, which was music to the ears of the concerned constituencies. The Benoit thesis was, of course, deeply flawed; it had some applicability to developed countries, but very limited applicability to developing countries.
Some examples can be given to illustrate Subrahmanyam’s style of ‘campaign academics’. His clarion call in July 1971 that India should exploit the revolt in East Pakistan, which began in March-April, and take advantage of ‘the opportunity of the century’ to dismember Pakistan was deeply embarrassing to Government. Why? The IDSA, being fully funded by the Ministry of Defense, was considered to be a Government mouthpiece. Several Ambassadors and High Commissioners in New Delhi immediately sought appointments with the Defense and Foreign Secretaries for clarifications. The only way Government could explain the situation was to urge that Subrahmanyam was speaking for himself, and the IDSA was an autonomous institution. Privately, however, Subrahmanyam was pulled up by K.B.Lall, then Defense Secretary.
Another example. His devotion to the Soviet Union in the Cold War years led him to support the most extraordinary policy contortions by the Government to justify aberrant Soviet actions; then, after the Cold War and the triumph of the United States, his support of the United States was equally uncritical. Witness, his refusal to apprehend the dangers to regional and international peace after the Soviet lurch into Afghanistan. Bhabani Sen Gupta’s out-of-the-box suggestion at that juncture that Soviet adventurism required India and Pakistan to evolve a common response was laughed out of court. Witness the fact, however, that no solution has emerged yet to the Afghanistan impasse after over three decades. And, Subrahmanyam’s unqualified support to the Indo-US nuclear deal did not appreciate that what was good for India was bad for the global non-proliferation system. Witness, how this system suffered a body blow, and the real possibility now exists of Pakistan being similarly favored by China. The point being emphasized here is that Subrahmanyam’s imbuing his own understanding to evocative terms like nationalism and realism led him into all manner of intellectual gymnastics to justify his ‘campaign academics.’
Subrahmanyam has been hailed as the progenitor of India’s nuclear policy. But this debate had an earlier vintage; it can be traced back to India’s defeat in the Sino-Indian border conflict in October-November 1962 , followed by China’s first nuclear test in October 1964. An alarmed Indian Parliament had immediately debated the need for India to exercise its nuclear option in its winter session, and the then Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, being forced to make a commitment that India would consider the nuclear option. Subrahmanyam had picked up these threads later to launch his campaign for the bomb that led to the ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’ in May 1974 and the nuclear test series in May 1998. Pakistan followed, and the situation created is exactly what was predicted in an IDSA seminar in early 1980. Again, it was recognized by Bhabani Sen Gupta that, should India go nuclear, the nuclearization of Pakistan was inevitable. Mutual nuclear deterrence between India and Pakistan would erode India’s conventional superiority—as seen during the Kargil conflict. Further, India-Pakistan hostility would not cease, but enter subterranean channels that would be difficult to counter. This tragic drama is being played out today. But, at that time, such views were deemed to be heresy, and condemned as anti-nationalist. Realism was deified as the greatest virtue, idealism became a term of abuse, and nuclear pacificism was equated with weak-mindedness.
This analysis of Subrahmanyam’s major campaigns is a professional evaluation.
What was he like as a person? Coming from a very modest background, it may not be known that he needed to work to pay his fees and finish his post-graduation. Thereafter, after entering the IAS, he had the responsibility of getting his siblings through their education and his sisters married. All that on the very meager salary of an IAS officer during his early years in the Service. He was, in his non-professional capacity, a very warm person, and extremely helpful by nature. He was ever willing to ‘put in a word’ to help out a family member or junior colleague. His greatest virtue was that he was always willing to teach younger scholars and share with them his knowledge. Blessed with a photographic memory and a prodigious ability to read and remember, he could accurately recollect facts and opinions after decades He used this ability both to educate people and to win arguments on the seminar floor. In the initial years he would ever willing to write for anyone who might request him and without any recompense. But, he had, naturally, to limit this generosity in his later years, especially when he had started writing regularly for the newspapers.
My writing about Subrahmanyam has been difficult for two reasons. For one, I had succeeded him as the Director of the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis in October 1975. It was still young, having been established in 1966.The first Director was a Major General Som Dutt. Subrahmanyam was its second Director, and I was the third. Very strangely, Subrahmanyam was re-posted to the Institute in April 1980. So, I was both his successor and predecessor in that post, which makes these recollections unavoidably subjective. But, my other difficulty is very personal. We are, or rather were, closely related. Familial linkages in India, as is well known, are much more intense than what exists in the West; hence our differences caused some distress to the family.
How can I sum up Subrahmanyam’s legacy? The phrase most frequently heard at his cremation was ‘end of an era.’ I think this would have amused him, because it assumes that international issues stand still and are not evolving. Great events are unfolding, and need to be constantly parsed. Like what will happen when the Americans and Europeans finally leave Afghanistan. How will the interaction between China’s ‘peaceful rise’ and India’s ‘emergence’ evolve? And, the new Cold War between the United States and China shape itself?
And so on. Subrahmanyam would have loved to have led these debates. He would also have agreed that the end of an era inevitably signals the birth of a new era
Visiting Professor, IPCS