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Speaking Notes at the International Conference on Kautilya

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  • Amb. Shivshankar Menon, National Security Advisor
    April 09, 2014

    Dr. Arvind Gupta,

    Ladies and Gentlemen.

    Thank you for asking me to speak to your seminar on the Arthashastra. I must congratulate Dr Gupta and the IDSA on your sustained Kautilya initiative which has really gained strength in three years. You have prompted scholars in India to undertake fresh and valuable research on Kautilya and the Arthashastra, and have also put us in touch with scholars on these subjects from across the world.

    What you have achieved through these seminars and conferences on Kautilya is important and relevant to a practitioner like me for two reasons:

    1. In the first place, Kautilya offers distilled experience of living and operating in a multi-state system which long predates and is an alternative to the Westphalian state system and, our (historically speaking) rather limited experience of its operation in the last few centuries. In fact Kautilya is probably more relevant to what we face today in at least one respect. The Westphalian system is based on an idealised and immaculate sovereignty. The Magadhan or Indian state system of the 3rd century BC was not. In our modern world technology has made state boundaries porous. By placing power in the hands of individuals and small groups, technology has broken the monopoly of violence of the state. In these respects the modern state is probably closer to what Kautilya describes than to the Westphalian ideal. It is therefore relevant and useful to see how the Arthashastra deals with these issues.

    We are in a world where power is more evenly distributed than in the Cold War, a world tending to multi-polarity, like the one that Kautilya knew, within which he worked to maximise the power of his King/State. It would be interesting to work on the Kautilyan approach to coping with a multi-polar world, work which would be at the intersection of both political science and Mauryan history to the extent that we know it.

    2. The other aspect that I find fascinating on rereading Kautilya is his reminder of the higher purpose of the state. The common impression of the Arthashastra is that this is a Machiavellian text. And yet, this is not a text for the glorification of the state or the Prince. Certainly it aims at consolidating and exercising the power of the King/State. But it constantly reminds us that the Dharma of the King is to benefit his subjects and the state, not himself. And the choice of policy instruments, whether sama, danda, bheda or bhava, depends on which serves that higher purpose and not on the individual preference or whim of the King. This is not a text on the divine right of Kings or Mandate of Heaven. Instead it is a text on how to achieve noble goals in an ignoble world, to achieve political and social progress in an unstable and unpredictable environment. Here again Kautilya is remarkably modern in his ideas and has considerable contemporary resonance. (That Kautilya managed to establish the Mauryan Empire shows the efficacy of what he prescribes.)

    Indeed the dilemma of the modern state is how to reconcile its two faces. One face is the poetic or political imagination of nationalism that inspires its people to believe in and die for it. The other face is the prosaic one of bureaucratic rationality from which people expect good governance and the delivery of services, the telephone company face for which no one will lay down his life. In other words there is in modern statecraft a binary opposition between dharma and artha, between norm and purpose, or between aspiration and instrumentality. Studying Kautilya and Mauryan history shows us that this binary is not just a modern phenomenon.

    Thanks to your efforts and those of several scholars around the world we may be at another “Kautilyan moment”. The last was when the national movement drew reassurance of Indian statecraft from the Arthashastra in the early twentieth century, seeking to establish an independent and realist tradition of our own in the collision between Indian nationalism and Imperial historiography. The Arthashastra itself emerged from the collision of India’s 6th century BC Enlightenment (Upanishads, Buddhism, reason) and the power politics of the Magadhan and North Indian state system in subsequent centuries. Both were worlds in rapid change. We seem to be at an analogous historical moment again.

    So let me once again wish you well and hope that this series of conferences on the Arthashastra and Kautilya organised by the IDSA goes from strength to strength.