In 21st century India, the Arthasastra is being put to good use
Chanakya’s Arthasastra has been on my mind for a couple of weeks since I was invited to inaugurate a National Seminar on the subject at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS) in Shimla this week.
I did not make it to Shimla, though the IIAS was most considerate, but I thought that I should share my thoughts in this column.
Apart from reflecting over the vast amount of literature already available, I came across a few volumes on Chanakya by Radhakrishnan Pillay, published in 2014 and after, which brought the legend to the contemporary world through not only research, but also the author’s personal experience of people, who have adopted the precepts of Chanakya to make models of leadership to meet the challenges of today.
Pillay establishes that the text book for kings written in the fourth century BC and followed by leaders of yore is relevant today even in the management of a police establishment.
In popular imagination, Chanakya is a ruthless ruler or strategist, a king or a king maker, who acts in his own self-interest, without any concern for others.
But his Arthasastra is the most comprehensive treatise on statecraft that has shaped and influenced Indian politics and diplomacy for nearly two thousand years. It is a civilizational gift from India to the world, which came long before Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’.
As for its global influence and relevance, there is no greater testimony than the one given by the modern Chanakya, Henry Kissinger. He characterised Arthasastra as a work that lays out the requirements of power, which is the “dominant reality” in politics.
He deemed it a combination of Machiavelli and Clauswitz. Machiavelli became synonymous for ruthlessness in politics. But the German sociologist Max Weber once called it “truly radical ‘Machiavellianism’… compared to it, Machiavelli’s The Prince is harmless.”
In essence, Arthasastra is a study of leadership in all areas of human activity, covering rulers, managers, customers and others. It lays down certain principles and strategies that should guide leaders at different levels.
It deals comprehensively with the way to enhance the efficacy of leaders, including techniques to vanquish enemies and to expand territories.
Chanakya’s analysis of statecraft is devoid of morality, it is cold and unsentimental. But he expects leaders to carry out their duties according to the law, even while conquering the earth. He does not endorse the Indian virtue of believing in fate and waiting for the auspicious confluence of stars and planets.
As for strategy, Chanakya considers it essential to analyse every situation deeply, including the strength of the enemy and the relative strength of the leader himself.
He has made his prescriptions of eternal value by picking and choosing measures that have worked out in specific situations in running a state and conducting international relations. He provides a menu of options, a virtual textbook for kings, ministers, public servants and, most importantly, diplomats.
Of all the theories of the international system propounded by Chanakya, the most significant for India is called the “circle of states,” or rajamandala.
According to this theory, hostile states are those that border the ruler’s state, forming a circle around it. In turn, states that surround this set of hostile states form another circle around the circle of hostile states.
This second circle of states can be considered the natural allies of the ruler’s state against the hostile states that lie between them. The idea of the rajamandala also holds that relations between two contingent states will generally be tense, a fact that is definitely true of many regions.
An odd country may be friendly to a dominating and big neighbour, but its status will be of a vassal. Nothing describes the eternal dilemma in South Asia, which has plagued India’s foreign policy.
The Arthasastra speaks at significant length on the policies necessary to secure the goals of the state. There are several guiding principles that govern Chanakya’s views on foreign policy.
These include - a ruler ought to develop his state by augmenting and exploiting its resources and power, the state ought to try and eliminate enemy states, those who help in this objective are friends, a state ought to stick to a prudent course, a ruler’s behaviour must appear just, and peace is preferable to war in attaining a goal.
Looking for streaks of Chanakya in makers of foreign policy in India is like looking for the influence of Vedanta and Mahatma Gandhi in the leaders of modern India.
We know it is there as a pervasive spirit, but it is difficult to pinpoint it in specific situations.
No Prime Minister has claimed that Chanakya is his or her role model, probably because of the stigma of extreme nationalism and ruthlessness attached to the prescriptions of Chanakya.
But every Prime Minister has employed the Chanakya precepts in situations that demanded decisiveness, finesse and shrewdness.
Jawaharlal Nehru saw himself as a pacifist and internationalist, who projected India’s dreams as those of the world. But the ideas of decolonisation, disarmament, equitable distribution of wealth and human rights were fundamental to Indian interests at the time.
Similarly, his neighbourhood policy reflected Chanakya’s advice to conquer the hearts of neighbours with assurances of friendship and security and be tough if necessary when India’s territorial integrity was breached.
But the Chanakya of the time was Sardar Patel, the mastermind that united India and advised Nehru to be unsentimental to China.
Indira Gandhi came closest to Chanakya in her leadership in national and international politics. The way she managed the liberation of Bangladesh was strictly according to Chanakya’s prescription of sama, dana, bheda and danda in dealing with adversaries.
She cared for public opinion to a certain extent, but was ruthless in decision making. The Bangladesh war, the nuclear explosion, the emergency and the attack on Bhindranwale were actions that Chanakya would have approved of.
For scheming and posturing, PV Narasimha Rao could teach something to Chanakya. His seeming indecision and bewilderment over global and domestic events camouflaged his steely determination, capacity for manipulation and stern action when necessary.
Nobody else could have handled the transformation of India in the post- Cold War world as effectively as he did. He even defended the tactics of saving his government as the duty of a leader to preserve his leadership by any means, going ahead of Chanakya in defining the role of the leader.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee had his own Chanakya in the person of Brajesh Mishra, once my boss in New York. Some of the actions of Vajpayee like the nuclear tests of 1998 were attributed to Mishra.
Nobody seems to have characterised Narendra Modi as Chanakya, as that appellation has gone to one of his most trusted advisers. But his journey from being a “chaiwala” to Prime Minister could not have been accomplished without a Chanakyan mind.
Nor could he have won an overwhelming victory in the recent elections without cold calculations, correct self-assessment and thorough knowledge of the adversaries, which Chanakya advocated for leaders.
No further evidence is required to prove that Chanakya is alive and well in twenty-first century India.
(The writer is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA. He is also the Chairman, Academic Council and Director, NSS Academy of Civil Services and Director General of the Kerala International Centre)
(Disclaimer: The opinions in this article are those of the author’s alone and not necessarily those of The Lede)