Wednesday June 26, 2019

Chanakya: Lessons for the modern diplomat from a classical strategist

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chanakya

By Gaurav Sharma

The annals of Classical or early phase of Indian history is replete with literary master-pieces. Contrary to popular belief, not all of these ancient Indian texts sermonize religious doctrines or philosophize spiritual truths.

Some works focus entirely upon reality as is seen by the naked eye. The Arthashastra, is one such unique piece of Indian literature that is brutally honest in its approach towards life, as visualized within the ambit of power.

The pragmatic treatise on the art of statecraft and governance, summarily shatters that Western cliche that Indians were primarily a bunch of ethereal spiritual thinkers in neglect of their material existence.

While focussing solely on worldly matters, the Arthashastra puts forth a comprehensive and ruthless strategy for achieving power.

The strategies for achieving power include the four great pillars of dealing with neighbouring powers, a mixture of : appeasement(Saama), gift or bribery(Daan), division or split(Bheda) and reward or punishment(Danda).

Such a strategy not only provided an unprecedented wealth of detail about early India but was also instrumental in inspiring the Nationalists or freedom fighters of India to establish a realpolitik for an aspiring India in the 20th century.

“The discovery of the Arthashastra was crucial in building the consciousness of Indian nationalists, in constructing a sense of India’s past and in setting the tone for what modern India can stand for”, says Indian diplomat Shiv Shankar Menon to BBC.

Authored by Chankaya, also known as  Kautilya and Vishnu Gupta, the Arthashastra is a treatise that was written somewhere around the 4th century BC.

A historical Sanskrit play called Mudrarakshasa narrates the fascinating role that Chanakya played in the ascent of Chandragupta Maurya into power. The play’s literal meaning, the “The Signet of the Minister” signifies the cunning tactics through which Chanakya changes the landscape of the Indian subcontinent.

It is believed that after being ridiculed by the of the Nanda dynasty, Chanakya untied his Shikha or lock of hair, considered as the symbol of discerning intellect, and vowed not to tie it back until he crushed the Nanda kingdom.

Indeed, through his guile and wit, Chanakya devises a shrewd political strategy of isolating his enemy’s allies. By using a deadly concoction of spying and deceit, Chanakya is gradually able to force Rakshasha, the last minister of the Nanda dynasty to surrender.

The conception of usurping power, as laid forth in the Mudrarakshasa and the Arthashastra, as a whole, bodes much lesson for the modern day geopolitical and diplomatic warfare that each country is inextricably involved in.

Many compare the Arthashastra with Machiavelli’s The Prince, a 16th Century political treatise which disrupted the western moral and religious beliefs by propounding harsh political pragmatism.

Max Weber, a German sociologist however opines such a comparison as naive.

“Truly radical “Machiavellianism”, in the popular sense of that word, is classically expressed in Indian literature in the Arthasastra of Kautilya: compared to it, Machiavelli’s The Prince is harmless”, says Weber in his essay Politics as a Vocation.

Comparing with different accounts of power and politics, such as Aristotle and Plato, in the same historical era, finds a unique perspective in the Arthashastra.

Merciless instructions such as, “An arrow released by an archer may kill a single person, but a strategy unleashed by a wise man, kills even those still in the womb”, are some of eccentric prescriptions that distinguish Chanakya’s doctrine from popular notions on power.

Chanakya describes a king or a ruler as someone who desires to conquer or yearns for power. For expanding power the king must hold a great deal of wealth, yet he stops short of advocating a free market.

In fact, Chanakya is deeply suspicious of traders. He explicitly warns the kings to be vigilant to the practise of under-invoicing, a tactic undertaken by traders to avoid custom duty.

When caught under-invoicing, Chanakya proposes a strict penalty of eight-times the custom duty. He goes a step further, by advising the ruler to keep all economic activities under check, closely reminiscent of the socialist model of governance.

On corruption, Chanakya describes more than forty ways of embezzlement and advises the ruler to keep a watchful eye on the state officials.

In a splendid simili, the master political strategist encapsulates the impossibility of detecting corruption: Just as a fish moving inside water cannot be known when drinking water, even so, officers appointed for performing work cannot be known when appropriating money.

Employing another imaginative analogy, Chankaya brings to fore the dubious ways in which officers might be working: It might be possible to know trace the path travelled by birds, but not the ways of officers moving with their intentions concealed.

The need for the ruler to establish smooth relations with the ruled, is given paramount importance in Kautilyan governance.

The guidelines for ceding mistrust and uncertainty among the populace include creation of an aura of miraculous power, making liberal use of illusions and manipulations through spies.

In the unlikely event of exposition of the wrongs committed by the king, a hefty punishment is to be meted out to the reprobates. These include whip lashes, scorpion bites, burning joints, heating in the sun for days, stroking with cane among other tortuous measures.

To eliminate the risk of assassination, the ruler can and should use a double, a preventive act already employed by politicians of the modern age.

Chanakya’s conception of power can be compared to a giant banyan tree which towers above as a shining beacon of majestic power but the whose roots lie embedded in an intricate web of secrecy, manipulation and constant spying.

This is very much how governments function in today’s day and age. There is a visibly pretty side of diplomatic dialogues and peace talks with a dark underbelly of spy networks which perpetually monitor the citizenry and other power structures.

In a broader context, Chanakya visualized and solved the same problems that we are facing today: A multi-polar world comprising of a complex mixture of bureaucracy, citizenry and diplomacy, all seething with an underlying current of vicious power.

Next Story

China Takes Panda Diplomacy to Moscow

Chinese leader Xi Jinping is on a three-day state visit to Russia

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China, Panda, diplomacy, Moscow
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a ceremony at which Xi was presented with an honorary degree from St. Petersburg State University in St. Petersburg, Russia, June 6, 2019. VOA

Chinese leader Xi Jinping is on a three-day state visit to Russia aimed at underscoring Russian-Sino cooperation — and his close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin — in the face of strained relations with the United States.

“In the past six years, we have met nearly 30 times,” said Xi of the Russian leader.

“Russia is the country that I have visited the most times, and President Putin is my best friend and colleague,” added Xi.

While ostensibly timed to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties, the state visit comes as both leaders bristle over their treatment by the U.S., which has levied sanctions against Russia since 2014 and currently is engaged in a trade war with China.

China, Panda, diplomacy, Moscow
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the ceremony at which Chinese President Xi Jinping was presented with an honorary degree from St. Petersburg State University at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia, June 6, 2019. VOA

“People generally tend to go to the places where they are liked,” said Mikhail Korostikov, Asia-Pacific observer for the Kommersant daily newspaper, in explaining the personal chemistry between Putin and Xi. “But the conflict with the U.S. that both countries are facing made them closer.”

Military ties

Indeed, beyond their grudges with Washington, a shared worldview on global security has helped both sides overcome distrust that once plagued the Soviet-China relationship, which fractured over differing interpretations of communist ideology and border disputes.

Case in point: inclusion of 3,200 Chinese troops alongside 300,000 Russians in the Kremlin’s massive Vostok-2018 military training exercise in Russia’s Far East last year, according to official sources.

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From their perch at the U.N. Security Council, Russia and China now regularly form a global counterweight to the U.S. on thorny issues such as Syria, North Korea and Iran — a point noted by Putin in a statement after meeting with Xi on Wednesday.

“In discussing important international and regional problems, I can say that in most of them, the views of Russia and China are aligned or very close,” said the Russian leader.

So, too, increasingly, are their economies.

Russian ‘pivot’

China, Panda, diplomacy, Moscow
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, attend a welcoming ceremony for two Chinese giant pandas, male Ru Yi and female Ding Ding, at the Moscow Zoo on June 5, 2019. VOA

In the wake of Western sanctions levied over the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin announced Russia would “pivot” its economy toward Asia.

Russian officials now tout trade deals with China worth more than $100 billion annually — making China Russia’s top trading partner — as proof Russia has weathered the storm. Russia is only 10th on China’s list, with the United States first.

Xi also will appear alongside Putin at the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on Friday. While the Chinese delegation to the event is 1,000 strong, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Huntsman Jr., is boycotting the event over the detention of an American businessman in Moscow.

Yet, in all likelihood, the lasting image of the state visit will prove to be Ru Yi and Ding Ding, two giant pandas from China’s Sichuan province that Xi gifted on loan to the Moscow Zoo for the next 15 years.

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With the gesture, Xi tapped into China’s famed panda diplomacy — the use of furry diplomatic gifts to help repair relationships or forge ties anew.

It certainly seemed to have the desired effect on the Russian leader.

“When we talk of pandas,” noted Putin, “we always end up with a smile on our faces.” (VOA)