K. Subrahmanyam: Toasting the Chanakya of our times (Comment)

By Sunil Adam, IANS
Friday, February 4, 2011

It was the summer of 1986. I attended a roundtable discussion on United States-India relations hosted by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, chaired by its director, K. Subrahmanyam. The featured speaker was the influential and well-regarded Michael Mandelbaum of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

During the course of a lengthy response to the visiting scholar’s presentation, Subrahmanyam blurted out, “Michael, you don’t know what you are talking about.” Along with a motley crowd of students, scholars, Indian and American officials present, I cringed and sank into my chair. Many of us didn’t have the nerve to look up to see if the red blood corpuscles had drained from Mandelbaum’s face, but after that the American kept his comments to a minimum and quickly concluded the session.

That was vintage Subrahmanyam — unapologetic, acerbic, curt and conclusive.

It was, of course, not the first time I had witnessed what, in an academic setting, can be charitably regarded as plain impertinence. As a student of international studies in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University who routinely attended Subrahmanyam’s lectures, I was familiar with his seemingly intemperate style, often accentuated by the perpetual frown that bore through his prescription glasses. One look at the stern face was enough to deter even a conscientious or professional dissenter untutored in clear thinking or articulation from opening his mouth. It was not unusual that most of the discussions in his seminars were often restricted to ways of agreeing with him.

Nevertheless, there was no way one would miss a chance to hear him - he was compelling, persuasive and, for me, infuriatingly engrossing. His sharp and analytical mind was backed by a crystal clear perspective of history, fastidiously assembled repertoire of facts and meticulously conceptualized thesis. But if that was all one took away from him, he’d still come up short - a cantankerous sidelined-bureaucrat-turned scholar. But what made Subrahmanyam a pre-eminent strategic thinker of modern India was his ability to define India’s place in the world and the means to carve it out without any ideological or moral accoutrements - everything for him, and consequently for India, must flow from a cold calculation of power and national interests.

This second and purposefully cynical facet of Subrahmanyam’s mindset escaped many of his detractors, both in India and abroad, including this writer, at least until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the first Gulf War, when he provided a doctrinal framework for India’s seamless transition from the clutches of anti-American non-alignment to a post-communist world dominated by a single superpower. Till then, he could have been, and often was, mistaken for any of the supercilious and argumentative Indian Administrative and Foreign Service officers who routinely projected on themselves the imagined greatness of their country — something that did not correspond to realities on the ground.

But Subrahmanyam digressed from India’s politico-bureaucratic establishment that was shaped by anti-colonial struggles and the Cold War. That is remarkable in itself, considering that he belonged to the generation that was compulsively suspicious of the West, cautiously sympathetic toward the East and pronouncedly committed to anti-imperialism abroad and democratic socialism at home. For Subrahmanyam, on the other hand, the guiding maxim was steeped in pristine realism, which recognised no permanent friends or permanent enemies, but only permanent interests.

The first Gulf War and India’s balance of payments crisis in 1991 provided the perfect foil for him to advocate a change of direction for India, even as New Delhi was still grappling with the contingencies stemming from a collapsing Soviet Union and the emasculation of the Non-Aligned Movement. Subrahmanyam was probably the first to see the writing on the wall. Months before US-led coalition forces launched Operation Desert Storm, when many of his counterparts were still discussing how America, in a replay of Vietnam, could be humbled in a prolonged hot war in the desert, Subrahmanyam predicted in an article in The Times of India that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq would be defeated in a matter of days, not weeks or months, by the sheer invincibility of American military weaponry.

If America’s emergence as the lone superpower — thanks to its dominant position in the global economy and its unquestioned technological supremacy in both the civilian and military sectors - demanded New Delhi’s reassessment of its alliance with an eviscerated Moscow and estrangement with a triumphant Washington, in Subrahmanyam’s strategic thinking, it also underscored the need for India to remain steadfast on its nuclear posture. Through the 1990s, even as he advocated close ties with the US, he was resolutely against compromising on issues like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

He never doubted that resisting American pressure on nuclear weapons was a condition for developing healthy relations with the US under a new world order where there was no countervailing power. Although he did not advocate the second nuclear tests, Subrahmanyam’s unstinting support thereafter for US-India nuclear agreement and forging of a strategic partnership with Washington were a logical extension of the nuclear and security doctrine that he conceptualised, crafted and codified.

His non-ideological credentials and intellectual prowess, unencumbered either by ornate prose or academic jargon, provided a doctrinal format on which India’s strategic community could shift from its anti-American and anti-capitalist focus to embracing a new course defined by non-confrontational nationalism and economic globalisation. It was not surprising to see the left ideologues who dominated the foreign policy and strategic affairs establishment in India pick up his treads and go on to renew their careers with a decidedly pro-Washington bent, while the thinker himself remained characteristically and resolutely committed to the pursuit of a polycentric world.

It was the same apolitical integrity that made him decline the government of India’s Padma Bhushan award — he felt bureaucrats and journalists should not accept honours that could compromise their independence. One can only guess what he must have felt about the host of Indian media personalities and foreign policy pundits, several decades younger than himself, gleefully lobbying for and accepting a whole range of government-minted honours.

It is such intellectual honesty and self-confidence that helped him bounce back even higher every time he was sidelined or marginalized by the insecure in the echelons of power. In a way, he proved that even in Indian bureaucracy that is flush with brittle egos, excellence cannot be suppressed. It also helped that despite being a forceful personality, Subrahmanyam did not take himself seriously or take other contrarian views to heart.

Here’s a toast to the Chanakya of our times.

(The writer is editor of the New York-based News India-Times. He can be contacted at suniladam@yahoo.com)

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