(This article written by Sanjeev Sanyal first appeared on the Economic Times blog section on 26 Jan, 2016)
Our Republic was established on this day in 1950. So, it is a good day to re-evaluate the nature of the Bharatiya state. One approach would be to compare it to what the framers of the Constitution had envisioned. Another, to contrast it with developments in other countries. But what if we compared it to the thoughts of Kautilya, one of the greatest political thinkers Bharat has ever produced?
Kautilya, also called Chanakya, is often called Bharat’s Machiavelli. But this colonial-era epithet is grossly unfair. For all his fame, Niccolò Machiavelli was a small-time political adviser in Florence who was ousted by his rivals. In contrast, Kautilya was the co-founder of one of the largest empires of the ancient world.
More importantly, for our purposes, Machiavelli’s writings are narrowly about how to how capture and maintain power using unscrupulous means. In contrast, the focus of Kautilya’s Arthashastra (Treatise on Prosperity) is on governance. There is occasional mention of intrigue and spies, but only in the wider context of maintaining order. Most of the book is about taxation, municipal laws, the legal system, property rights, labour laws and so on.
Many of the specific measures suggested by Kautilya are influenced by the technology and social mores of his times. But we can certainly apply his principles to the Indian Republic. Conveniently, the Arthashastra explicitly lays out the principles in several instances.
The text is clear that the singlemost important role of the state is to avoid Matsanyaya — the Law of the Fish — where the big fish consume the small. This means that, before it does anything else, the state must ensure defence, internal security, rule of law and, most importantly, have complete monopoly over violence within its territory.
Notice how the Arthashastra is explicitly not about the welfarism of a nanny state. Instead, it contains long discussions on property rights, enforcement of contracts and consumer protection. Kautilya is clearly wary of government officials, for, he says, “Just as it is impossible to know when a fish is drinking water, so it is impossible to tell when government officials misappropriate money.”
Supreme State, Not Court
This is not to suggest that Kautilya was an early libertarian arguing for minimalist government. Far from it. He advocated a government that actively provided public goods, regulated markets and encouraged public sector undertakings in sectors like mining. The emphasis, however, is always on maintaining the overall framework of governance rather than on specific interventions in people’s lives. The text repeatedly states that self-restraint is the single most important attribute in a king. In other words, the Kautilyan ideal is a ‘strong’ but ‘limited’ State.
The idea can be illustrated by what Kautilya would have had to say about today’s debates on prohibition of alcohol or the Supreme Court ban on jallikattu, the traditional Tamil sport of bull-taming, “People taking to pleasures consume little; they do so to relax from the fatigue of work and get back to work again after relaxation. A decadent king, on the other hand, oppresses the people.…”
This statement does not mean that Kautilya didn’t care for animal welfare or drunkards’ disorderly behaviour. But his approach would have been to allow most activities as long as they remained within a framework of rules about health and safety.
Moreover, he was far more concerned about restraining the misuse of state power in everyday life than in banning so-called vices. Thus, prostitution is considered a legal but regulated profession. Kautilya writes that “proper procedure must be used to induct the virgin daughter of a prostitute, whether willing or not; coercive methods shall not be used”.
So what would Kautilya do if he were alive today? A reading of the Arthashastra suggests that the first thing he would do is fix the judicial system. He would look on the 32-million pending cases as the epitome of Matsanyaya. Kautilya’s thinking would be that the delivery of justice is more important for the welfare of the poor than any subsidy scheme.
Second, he would invest heavily in internal security to sternly put down violence from terrorists, Maoists, criminals and mobs of various shades. Many social scientists today take the view that poverty and inequality lead to social disorder. But Kautilya would argue that the direction of causality runs in reverse.
Third, he would attempt a dramatic simplification of taxes, regulations and the administrative structure. His view would be that every complication breeds corruption.
There is a stark contrast between the above approach and the paternalistic thinking of Emperor Ashoka just two generations later. In his inscriptions, Ashoka repeatedly says that he considers his subjects as his children and then explicitly states that his officials are like nannies meant to look after them.
The Empire as Umpire
He then goes on to announce all kinds of restrictions on what people can eat or do on certain days. “On the three Chaturmasis, the three days of Tisa and the 14th and 15th of Uposatha, fish are protected and not to be sold. On the eighth of every fortnight, on the 14th and 15th, on Tisa, Punarvasu, the three Chaturmasis and other auspicious days, bulls are not to be castrated.…” A special cadre of officials called Dhamma Mahamantras — religious police — were given the task of enforcing these laws.
The over-extended Ashokan state caused the Mauryan empire to disintegrate from rebellion and fiscal stress while the emperor was still alive. Yet, the dominance of Nehruvian thinking in the 20th century led the Bharatiya republic to follow the Ashokan model for the last 66 years. The result is a weak and all-pervasive state. Perhaps it is time to revisit Kautilya. After all, he created a large, well-functioning empire, while Ashoka presided over its disintegration.
By Sanjeev Sanyal
(This article first appeared on the Economic Times blog section on 26 Jan, 2016, and has been reproduced here with one minor change – references to India have been replaced with Bharat)
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