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Shashank Mittal asked: What is the contemporary relevance of Kautilya's Saptang theory?

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  • Medha Bisht replies: Saptanga theory is the theory of the state. Translated as seven limbs—sapt-anga, it helped one understand the prakriti (nature or character) of the state. The seven constituent elements can also be described as the building blocks, which determined the prakriti of the state. These building blocks were important for augmenting the state capacity and influence.

    By articulating the significance of sapt-anga, which were, swamin (leadership), amatya (council/intellectual power), janapada (territory and people), durga (fortress–defensive power), Kosha (treasury–economic power), Danda (military–offensive power), and Mitra (ally), Arthashastra brings upfront a plural understanding of power. Significantly, the Mitra (ally) was the seventh constituent element, which is indicative of the relative power it brought to the state capacity and influence. These constituents, also called outstanding elements of the state, needed to be cultivated and guarded carefully, as they had specific aspirational benchmarks, which determined whether the state would belong to the superior category or an inferior category.  In other words, a state would weaken, if these constituent elements departed from their outstanding qualities and, likewise, a state would prosper and strengthen if these constituent elements were guarded well and cultivated to meet the aspirational benchmarks.

    The parameters offered by Saptanga theory are suggestive of two things.  First, the idea of the state is not divorced from the idea of statecraft. Effective statecraft should be directed to strengthen the different constituent elements of the state. Second, safeguarding these disparate elements was the dharma (duty) of the state, as the lack of it could lead to instability in the long term. In fact, Arthashastra notes that any factor which threatened the state (read constituent elements) had to be considered a kantaka (thorn/enemy), and needed kantaka shodhan (removal). Hence, strategies in Arthashastra were directed towards minimising their adverse impacts. Significantly, famines and floods were also considered kantakas.

    Thus, augmenting the state capacity is very important. First, it should not be unidimensional (just in terms of building offensive and defensive power), but plural, ranging from a choice of allies, maintaining a strong economy, taking expert advice on important policy decisions, and safeguarding both territory and people (the latter are important to endow legitimacy). Second, both traditional and non-traditional challenges merit equal attention. Third, policy decisions cannot be taken in a siloed and compartmentalised manner. A holistic, comprehensive approach is needed while making policy decisions, as the constituent elements that define the state are intertwined.

    Posted on 28 February 2022

    Views expressed are of the expert and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or the Government of India.