Like many others, I was saddened to learn of the passing of Shri Brajesh Mishra, India’s first national security advisor, who—let us not forget—was also principal secretary to the prime minister and before that a veteran Indian diplomat. In my handful of experiences interacting with him, I found him to be a thoroughly decent individual, not at all averse in his later years to a casual visit to his home or a frank conversation over a drink. His passing represents, in some respects, the end of an era among Indian thinker-practitioners of foreign policy, coming just over 18 months after the death of K. Subrahmanyam. I heard KS and Mishra referred to more than once by foreign observers as the Kissinger and Brzezinski of India, but that comparison is only superficially apt. Neither came from a background in academia, instead having first risen as career civil servants. And given the paucity of heavyweight foreign policy intellectuals in India, their roles may in fact have been more influential in shaping Indian strategic thought and policy than even their highly-regarded counterparts in the American context.
In an insightful piece, Arvind Gupta, director general of the Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses, writes:
In hindsight one can say that due to a combination of circumstances, Brajesh Mishra and K. Subhramanyam came together at an important juncture in India’s history. Brajesh Mishra was the national security adviser when K. Subhramanyam headed the first [National Security Advisory Board] and also the Kargil Review Committee. Subhramanyam helped conceptualise national security management, while Brajesh Mishra played a key role in implementing some of these ideas. The two had independent ideas and did not always agree but they also complemented each other.
Dr. Gupta is right to point out Mishra and Subrahmanyam’s complementarities, and circumstances certainly had a lot to do with their success. But as it falls to later generations to take up the batons left by the two luminaries, it might be worthwhile considering why it was that they gained such esteem and influence in the first place.
First, having served as career bureaucrats in the Indian government, both Mishra and Subrahmanyam had a keen appreciation for the bureaucratic and structural limitations of the government apparatus. Although they were occasionally characterized during their careers as hawks, they played valuable moderating roles in shaping the national interest, driven by practical considerations that tempered ideals. Such an appreciation of the limitations of the Indian government, unfortunately, may be lost on future generations of strategists who—despite their analytic acumen—may not have the experience of working on the inside. It should be no surprise that the position of National Security Advisor has always been assumed, until now, by former civil servants. For the near term, at least, bureaucratic authority and experience will count for a lot more in Indian policy circles than might be ideal.
Second, while they both advised prime ministers and other political leaders, KS and Mishra offer two diverging models for winning political relevance, which is critical to policy implementation. Mishra, after leaving the foreign service, joined the BJP under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and linked his fortunes closely with those of the future prime minister. Upon the NDA’s victory in the 1998 general elections, Mishra became principal secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office and after creating the position of National Security Advisor (at KS’s insistence), also assumed the reins of foreign policy and national security in this new guise. Such was Vajpayee’s faith in Mishra’s handling not just of foreign policy but every facet of administration that it became something of a joke in Delhi that the government came to a standstill when Brajesh was indisposed. Subrahmanyam sought the opposite route, resisting the semblance of close ties to any one party or leader in order to win a reputation as an impartial and non-partisan advisor.
As Gupta notes, it was when one was National Security Advisor and the other was chairman of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) that the two managed to successfully advance a national agenda related to such issues as the use of nuclear weapons and defense and intelligence management. Mishra’s good standing with his political masters won him the requisite authority, while Subrahmanyam’s wider appeal and impartiality made these then-controversial ideas palatable to a broader political and public spectrum. It should also be noted that despite his strong political inclinations, Mishra later supported policies that his party opposed. Subrahmanyam, too, was not strictly apolitical, advising political parties whenever called upon for his expertise.
Both Mishra and Subrahmanyam were also noted for their strong personalities, reflecting what some viewed as stubbornness. But this was also an important source of their success. Subrahmanyam made much the same argument in favour of an independent nuclear deterrent for India from the late 1960s onward—it took him 30 years to see his vision of an India as a nuclear weapons power come true. Similarly, reports of meetings between Mishra and his American counterparts in the early 2000s show him repeatedly making the same arguments in favour of closer ties, even during periods when the United States was dismissive. His vision was only realized in the second half of the decade, after the NDA lost power. Both Mishra and Subrahmanyam may have sounded repetitive at times, but they also demonstrated an unwavering fidelity to what they believed was the only right end state.
Finally, the institutions and policies that both Mishra and Subrahmanyam advocated (the post of National Security Advisor, minimum deterrence, overlapping intelligence agencies) were, in fact, drawn far more from Western examples than is sometimes realized. Yet, both understood that these institutions and concepts needed to be adapted to India’s unique context. Both had an appreciation of the key facets of policy: the nature of a problem and the availability of viable solutions. Conversations with the two of them reflected both a thorough understanding of the necessary facts and a rigorous logic. Their deep appreciation of India’s circumstances, their identification of only the relevant issues as priorities, and their rational distillation of possible solutions appear missing in some of today’s policymaking and commentary.
Perhaps circumstances will ensure—for better, as much as for worse—that India will not see two other individuals enjoying the same stature in Indian strategic circles, as influential commentators or policy executors. Kissinger and Brzezinski were anomalies, but the better counterparts to Subrahmanyam and Mishra in the United States might in fact be the generation of Acheson, Marshall, Dulles, Kennan, and Nitze, which had a unique opportunity to forge the institutional infrastructre and conceptual foundations of American diplomacy and security. Later generations made necessary improvements to their basis, leading to the advent of the U.S. National Security Council, to a thorough overhaul of higher defense management, and to improvements to the inter-agency process and to intelligence coordination. Perhaps, then, future generations of Indian strategists should be striving not to be India’s Kissinger or Brzezinski or Kennan, but rather our own versions of Bundy, Rostow, McNamara, Schultz, Scowcroft, Gates, or Baker.