10:00 am EST - 12:00 pm EST

Past Event

The Career and Ideas of K. Subrahmanyam

Friday, February 18, 2011

10:00 am - 12:00 pm EST

The Brookings Institution
Somers Room

1775 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, DC

On February 18, Brookings hosted a roundtable on the career and ideas of Dr. K. Subrahmanyam, a long influential voice in India’s strategic and security affairs. A group of India experts and Dr. Subrahmanyam’s colleagues discussed his life and accomplishments. Dr. Subrahmanyam died at the age of 82 on February 2, 2011, in New Delhi.

London, sometime in the late 1960s: during a seminar at the Institute for Strategic Studies (later, the IISS), a young visiting fellow from India stands up and gives the British Secretary of War a lengthy lecture on the West’s “hypocrisy” and “atrocities,” from Dresden and Hiroshima, to Vietnam. He was not invited back and the uproar was such that the Institute’s advisory board would have no Indian representative for several years.

New Delhi, ca. 1984: The American Embassy hosts Professor Kenneth Waltz on a visit to the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), where he gives a talk supporting India’s right to a nuclear program. Unlike similar events hosting Western delegations, this time, the microphones are not snatched away. There are no sermons on India’s “rights and superior morality.” Silently sitting in the audience, the young man from London, now the director of the institute, seems bemused, probably wishing all Americans thought like Waltz.

These are just two of the many stories a group of India experts and former colleagues of Dr. K. Subrahmanyam recalled on February 18, during a Brookings Institution round table on the career and ideas of Subbu (as he is fondly referred to by friends). He died at the age of 82 on February 2, 2011, in New Delhi.

A South Indian Tamilian who joined the Indian civil services in 1951, Subrahmanyam played a central role in shaping Indian defense and security policies for almost half a century, most notably as a secretary in the Ministry of Defence (1962-65, 1979-80), chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (1977-79) and convener of the National Security Advisory Board. After 1999, he chaired the Kargil Review Panel, which recommended, and partially set into motion a comprehensive reform of India’s defence and security apparatus.

On the intellectual front, Subrahmanyam served twice as the director of India’s premier defense think tank (1968-75 and 1980-87) and wrote innumerable books, reports and articles that deeply influenced and continue to permeate Indian strategic thought. Many liked to call him “India’s Kissinger.”

Pragmatic Realist

The above two historical episodes in Subrahmanyam’s long career highlight the intensity with which he defended what he understood to be in India’s supreme national interest. In Washington, especially at the height of the Cold War, this led to his reputation as India’s “no. 1 anti-American,” some officials even describing him as “a Communist.” This, however, ignores that he was a committed democrat and that his anti-American positions were actually driven by his belief that the United States had let down its own moral standards.

Central to this perspective was his experience as a deputy secretary in the Ministry of Defence when, at the height of the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War, the United States suddenly cut off assistance to India. Already upset by Washington’s policy of treating India as a minor power and “second Pakistan”, he perceived this to be the ultimate American offense. It was probably this sense of betrayal, coupled with his principled belief that India had to develop its military power, which in subsequent decades led him frequently on a collision route with Washington.

In the words of one round table participant, Subrahmanyam was throughout his career driven by a “strong vision about India’s national interest.” As a “pragmatic realist,” however, he did not shy away from updating his worldview and consequently also changing his policy prescriptions. This explains how the same man, who, in 1971, had unambiguously supported his country’s alignment with the Soviet Union, emerged after 2005 as one of the most ardent supporters of a rapprochement with the United States.  Subrahmanyam is believed to have played a crucial role in assuring the success of the bilateral civil nuclear cooperation agreement.

Several participants thus underlined Subrahmanyam’s impressive “transformation”, from a man who the American Embassy in New Delhi once saw as an enfant terrible who took pleasure at lecturing and chasing away visiting American diplomats, scholars and generals, into an advocate of a “symbiotic” U.S.-India partnership based on “shared interests” and democratic values.

An Articulate “Nuclear Dove”

At a wider level, his impressive adaptive capacity led the way for India to reposition itself after 1991, in response to the Soviet ally’s sudden collapse and the radically changed circumstances of a post-Cold War order dominated New Delhi’s former foe. One of the round table participants thus described his role as someone who “provided the language and vision for post-Cold War India” and was able to “articulate India’s new interests against the opposition of many who insisted in clinging on to the old framework they had got used to.”
For another American participant, who interacted closely with him at IDSA, he was therefore always “a man of the present, youthful and confident about the future.” In recent years, despite his advanced age, his “clear and optimistic perspectives about India’s current and future trajectory” therefore contrasted fundamentally with the largely “defensive and conservative” positions of his much younger colleagues.

Subrahmanyam’s advocatory role for India’s nuclear program was also widely discussed as an example of how his pragmatic approach transcended the simplistic dichotomy between idealism and realism. Some participants, for example, noted that he claimed an Indian deterrent capability on almost “existential grounds,” especially after the 1962 military defeat against China and the 1964 tests by its Northern neighbor.

However “appalled” at these developments and at the Western opposition to India’s nuclear program (the phrase “ayatollahs of disarmament” is conventionally attributed to him), one participant underlined that Subrahmanyam always remained a “nuclear dove,” favoring only a “limited” program and conscious of its large costs.

In line with his larger foreign policy framework, he thus saw nuclear weapons as a mere instrument to achieve India’s larger national interests. This probably also explains why, in the words another Indian participant, he “did not see any contradiction between nuclear power as a necessary currency for Indian power and, at the same time, the belief that this currency should be gradually phased out.”’

The Mentor and His Legacy

K. Subrahmanyam has been and will continue to be fondly remembered in at least three capacities. First, he will be remembered as a nonpartisan intellectual who, even as a member of the Indian Administrative Services (IAS), and at great political cost, never compromised his independence of thought. This eventually led him to refuse the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian honor, in 1999.

Second, as a mentor to several generations of strategic thinkers, who was always approachable and both “intimidating and inspiring” to younger scholars and journalists who revered him as Bomb Mama (Uncle Bomb). And, finally, also as an institution-builder whose long-term strategic thinking have become a hallmark of IDSA, an institution he helped transform into one of Asia’s top think tanks.

On a less hagiographic note, his brilliant career and original ideas also reflect two important gaps. On the one hand, in the words of one participant, Subrahmanyam was a methodological “rationalist,” profoundly committed to “logical thought and analysis,” which sometimes made it difficult for him to communicate with those driven by the practical and urgent imperatives of daily policy-making. On the other hand, perhaps reflecting the fact that he never lived extensively abroad, Subrahmanyam also lacked the ability to put himself in the shoes of others, notably Pakistan.

The round table participants discussed several ways of keeping Subbu’s legacy alive. Perhaps a good way to start, and bridge both these gaps, would be to create a network of K. Subrahmanyam chairs in Indian strategic policy studies at institutions and universities in the United States, Europe and other countries committed to a deeper understanding of contemporary Indian defence and security debates. Instead of ignoring and alienating critical Indian voices, as during K. Subrahmanyam’s London visit in the 1960s, we need to invite, listen to and interact with the young Indian Subrahmanyams of today.

Event Summary by Brookings Senior Research Assistant Constantino Xavier, and Senior Fellow Stephen Cohen.


  • February 18
    • The Career and Ideas of K. Subrahmanyam

      On February 18, Brookings hosted a roundtable on the career and ideas of Dr. K. Subrahmanyam, a long influential voice in India’s strategic and security affairs. A group of India experts and Dr. Subrahmanyam’s colleagues discussed his life and accomplishments. Dr. Subrahmanyam died at the age of 82 on February 2, 2011, in New Delhi.