What is modern about ancient Chanakya?
Something great happening in the past has its use mainly if it can be applied in the present for the betterment of the future.
Something great happening in the past has its use mainly if it can be applied in the present for the betterment of the future. Kautilya's 'Arthashashtra,' the most famous of the works on statecraft produced in ancient India, is a treatise comprehensively dealing with the political, economic and administrative concepts on which a king could do justice to his duties.
For a vast compendium on how to run a successful regime, produced in 300 BC, it is remarkable that the thematic points made by Chanakya retain their relevance for the world of today – many of these can be identified and examined by the strategic analysts for adoption by the modern state both for governance at home as well as the handling of foreign relations.
Chanakya's first immutable principle precisely is the one that calls upon the ruler to be well informed about the situation within and outside of the empire. The state must have its channels for the information inflow and whatever was required to safeguard the sensitive information must be done. That the voice detection through censor technology can be done from remote locations now, does not detract from the importance that was laid then on the awareness of a possible covert interception of confidential communication by the enemy.
Perhaps the most important theory of governance of a state given out by Chanakya that stands the test of time is his emphasis on a complete identification of the ruler with the state in terms of his having the required political will, no vested interest of a personal kind and the ability to provide a strong governance while at the same time maintaining a perfect balance between state management and people's welfare.
Chanakya laid the foundation for making India the first welfare state when he ruled that "in the happiness of his subjects lies the king's happiness." He included even animals among the subjects – in all likelihood alluding to the cattle wealth of India. With an exceptional farsightedness, Chanakya pronounced that 'security of state lies in the security of citizens' – he could see that an insecure citizen was vulnerable to outside influences.
Another point of focus for Chanakya that was in line with an absolutely modern concept of governance of the state, was to recognise that the ruler had not only to provide a sound administration but also work for making the state prosperous. He could see the link between economy and security – the foundation of the contemporary thesis that 'national security was inseparable from economic security'.
Chanakya saw the obvious when he postulated that the strength of the state ultimately derived from its military power. For this he favoured the idea of military training being imparted to all youth keeping in view the requirement of what would come to be known as 'conscription' later.
It is in the area of international relations that Chanakya's principles hold good today and even provide added strength to policy makers in the present. He called for a well-founded evaluation of friends and adversaries outside and further identification of the 'circle of contacts' of both. Chanakya, in his profound wisdom, makes a distinction between 'natural friends' and 'potential allies' and enunciates the concept of 'balance of power'. This latter emerged as the prime mover of international relations in the years of Cold War and became relevant in the post-Cold War era too.
India's foreign policy under Prime Minister Modi favouring bilateral and multilateral friendships based on mutuality of economic and security interests and upholding the cause of world peace without the baggage of 'isms', is in complete alignment with Kautilya's philosophy and is serving the nation well.
Arthashashtra acknowledges the use of information for influencing the psychology of the targeted population as well as the enemy – this is where Chanakya comes closest to recognising the importance of 'Information Warfare' and makes a specific mention also of the need to select individuals to spread official information and act as medium of propaganda designed to serve the interests of their state in a situation of conflict.
Chanakya believed in the primacy of the state and supremacy of the political leadership ruling the state. According to Chanakya, whenever there is a conflict between the Shastras (religious law) and the written law based on Dharma, the written law shall prevail. Arthashashtra keeps the state above religion, race and regional loyalties – a legacy democratic India has preserved to this day.
Today's world is geopolitically divided amongst countries ruled by Communist dictatorship, those under the sway of Islamic extremism and the nations following a democratic polity. This makes Chanakya's advocacy of 'balance of power' so much more intricate because as is the case with India, the interplay of two different kinds of conflict – 'civilisational' between the West and the Islamic radicals and 'ideological' between Communism and democracy – had to be diplomatically negotiated, to serve our national interests.
There are two more epoch making changes of our times that distantly connect with Chanakya's thoughts but need an entirely new understanding and innovative application to serve the interests of the state. One is the rise of the phenomenon of 'proxy wars,' particularly in the post-Cold War era as a substitute to 'open' military attacks.
The second is the new version of 'information warfare' that is linked to the arrival of cyber age. Today social media is an instrument of combat and 'proxy politics' because of its capacity to influence people. Chanakya recognised the importance of sending out information to influence targeted population as also the enemy camp but information warfare presently is a different ball game.
In a nutshell, however, it can be said that India should be proud of Kautilya's Arthashashtra as an ancient storehouse of wisdom about statecraft, morality of governance and the practical approaches to keeping the democratic state secure against external and internal threats. A lot of what it contains is applicable to the contemporary world.
(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau)