K. Subrahmanyam. Photo: Screengrab via YouTube/Rajiv Mehrotra

I joined the Times of India as a callow assistant editor in 1995 at the age of 30. We were a small team, under the leadership of Sanjaya Baru, and the most valuable and prolific member of our editorial page group was K. Subrahmanyam, the legendary strategic thinker. He was, if memory serves me right, close to 70. We never thought much about his age, though – going by the wisdom of the ‘confident’ and brash ‘New India’ – he could perhaps have been described as ‘old’.

He was so wise and catholic in his interests that we were in and out of his room every day, spending hours in discussion and argument. We affectionately called him ‘Bomb Mama’, a reference both to his avuncular mien and deep interest in nuclear issues. The articles he wrote and the work he did – eg. on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty  negotiations then underway, on Nato’s 1999 war on Yugoslavia, on the shortcomings that led to Kargil – did more to strengthen India’s strategic autonomy and security than a lot of the posturing we see today about ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’. One did not have to agree with his views on everything to recognise his intellectual courage in staking out a position.

Prior to becoming an editorial writer and columnist, Subrahmanyam had been a distinguished civil servant, including in the Ministry of Defence, but his true calling was as a man of ideas. He built up the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses into a formidable think tank – a position it has lost in recent years, sadly – and steered the ship of Indian strategic thinking for over three decades.

Far from currying favour with prime ministers, he spoke his mind even when it made him unpopular with his political bosses. That is why he never became defence secretary. Despite his intellect and integrity, he was, of course, never tapped after retirement for a ministerial position either.

Brajesh Mishra, India’s first national security adviser, was his close friend but that did not prevent Subrahmanyam from repeatedly questioning Mishra’s concurrent appointment as the prime minister’s principal secretary. In turn, Mishra and Atal Bihari Vajpayee had no problem in naming him convener of the first National Security Advisory Board. Those were gentler times, when leaders were not overly unsettled by criticism and dissent.

I once asked Bomb Mama whether he ever regretted not having risen to the top of the bureaucratic ladder. I don’t recall his exact words but he said he was happy to have always answered to his own conscience. The truth, of course, is that he had absolutely no reason for regrets. As an independent analyst and writer, he exerted far more influence on public policy than he might have done as a ‘loyal’ cog in the Raisina Hill wheel.

This story was originally published in thewire.in. Read the full story here