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  • Adhrish Chakraborty

Revisiting the Relevance of Chanakya Niti

India's foreign policy paradigm has its roots in the geriatric civilisational heritage throughout various epochs witnessed by the country. The influence of ancient India's most eminent political philosopher, Chanakya, still finds its ascendency throughout the framework of strategic planning in India which has sought a system of layered relations coupled with a gross mistrust for most nations. Modern India is quite aware of President Roosevelt's maxim or rather a Kautilya dictum of speaking softly while carrying a big stick.

Kautilya's Arthashastra or the science of statecraft was the first practical step taken to develop the foundation of administrative principles which has relevance to the modern Indian bureaucracy. Like Machiavelli, who was concerned with the unification of Italy, Kautilya, too, was the first ancient philosopher who talked about a unified Indian empire or state.

Kautilya institutionalised the concept of social welfare in an economic format, centuries before his Greek successors. He preached that in a good state, it is not only necessary to have the right laws and institutions devoted to public welfare but the right kind of relationship and interdependence between other states as well. At a time when ancient India delved in spiritual and religious peremptoriness, Kautilya understood the real world Politik and hence both a friend and an enemy (state) became constituent elements of his understanding of sovereignty.

Kautilya propagated the organic theory of state and conceived the world order to be fundamentally anarchic in nature. He analysed that in order to grow, states or kingdoms have to follow the 'Matsanyay' principle or the law of the jungle where the weaker and the vulnerable states ought to be devoured by the stronger ones, to grow and expand. History is a living example of how Kautilya's dictum held true in the global context, from medieval Europe to the colonial aggrandisement.

However, he believed that relations with other states are important as no state exist in isolation, in fact, every state is competing with each other to be at the helm of the power chain. This implies no state can be stable unless it takes care of its foreign relations. If such relationships are paid no heed to, argues Kautilya, the state will soon fall prey to fratricidal conspiracies and insurgent activities hatched by fellow conspirators struggling to be at the top of the food chain.

Kautilya maintained that the only viable modus operandi for the protection of an empire or state is to be wakeful and to treat the offence as the most effective defence, to ensure that the state is not only capable of defending itself but also inflicting damage as and when the need arises.

Kautilya's interpretation of inter-state relationship is one of the most realistic and fundamentally sound principles based on the nature of the distribution of power belt, unequal growth of lines of communication Discovery of new territory and ethnic and population differences coupled with economic disparity.

These are some of the factors which guide inter-state relationships even in the neoteric world order. The extensive body of rules concerned with mutual state relations in Kautilya's works contains the most complete as well as the most important contribution on the subject made by our ancient political philosopher.

Neo foreign policy and strategic planning are based on the geographies of diplomacy. Kautilya recognised it a millennium ahead and argued that the multiplicity of topographic features along political lines is a constant source of conflict and instability. He says whoever build a fortification on the strategically best-fitted ground is able to maintain a balance of power. A modern example of this understanding is the Sino-Indian conflict along the LAC( Line Of Actual Control) in the Aksai Chin region, where both the countries try to maintain a strategically superior position to wield control in that area and keep an eye on the development on the enemy front. Instability of the boundary is a factor determining the mutual relationship between the two nation-states.

Kautilya promulgated that when a river flows across the territories of two or more states, a conflict between the neighbours is inevitable. Modern-day examples include the Indo-Bangladesh Ganges river dispute, India-Pakistan river water dispute or the India-Nepal Kalapani dispute where Nepal’s claims to the region are based on this river as it became the marker of the boundary of the kingdom of Nepal following the Treaty of Sugauli signed between the Gurkha rulers of Kathmandu and the East India Company after the Gurkha War/Anglo-Nepal War (1814-16).

Kautilya was also the proponent of the Rajamandala theory (a strategic geographical location that determines the notion of friendship and enmity). Through his Rajamandala doctrine, Kautilya prescribes foreign policies and diplomatic strategies to the king's in the circle to become the conqueror of all other kings within the circle or a Chakravarthi.

The basic principles of the Mandal theory are:-

A neighbour is a natural enemy.

A neighbour's neighbour is a natural friend.

Greater is the distance, lesser is the enmity

All friendship in the international sphere is guided by interest and convenience.

Inter-state relations cannot be taken for granted.

In Kautilya's view, "A king should not hesitate to break any friendship or alliances that are later found to be disadvantageous."

Kautilya is thought to have opposed the involvement of religion in politics and therefore called for the restructuring of the 'Purusharthas' to give precedence to materialism over religion. The Kautilyan polity seems to go well with the idea of Nayagyaha Prithivim Jayathi meaning one skilled in diplomacy wins over the world.

Another important contribution of Kautilyan diplomacy was his Shadguna Niti or six-fold policies to deal with other states, friendly or hostile. The six still nitis are :-

Sandhi (treaty)- If the enemy is strong, one should go for sandhi. Contemporary reference can be given to the Treaty Of Versailles. The Treaty of Versailles (1919) officially ended World War I between the Allies and Germany.

Vighra (Break treaty/sandhi)- Break a sandhi when you become stronger. Nazi Germany followed this maxim of Kautilya when fascist leader Adolf Hitler violated the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Pact by sending German military forces into the Rhineland, a demilitarized zone along the Rhine River in western Germany, sparking the flames of another World War.

Aasana (To sit)- Stationing of forces near enemy's territory, a classical example would be the modern-day border patrol and surveillance to protect a country from external aggression.

Samashrya (Objective)- To join hands with those who have similar objectives. Various military and inter-governmental alliances like the Quad were set up with keeping a specific objective in mind. For Quad, it was to contain China's influence in the South China Sea in particular and to promote freedom of navigation or rules-based maritime order.

Yana (movement)- Military exercises near enemy territory. Russia has deep interests in Afghanistan is pursuing a twin-track policy by pursuing diplomacy backed by military exercises with two erstwhile Soviet Republics, on the other hand, to safeguard its security interests and keep the Eurasian region stable amid Taliban surge and fear of ISIS.

Dvaidhbhava (Dual Policy)- It signifies friendship with one and enmity with another. Kautilya insists the king not go to war on two fronts at the same time. Dual Policy is one of the keystones of American foreign policymaking. Under the Trump administration, the U.S government praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, denied Russia's penetration of the U.S. elections and sought to normalise relations with the Kremlin in order to make bargains with America's key adversary, on one hand, meanwhile, it maintained economic sanctions on Moscow, pushed forward with an enhanced military presence along NATO's eastern front and supported further NATO enlargement.

It is evident from here how Kautilyan dictums influence foreign policy and strategic planning to date. He was undoubtedly a realist and dealt with the state adversaries in a clinical fashion. Max Weber in a lecture called Arthashastra to be more harmful than Machiavelli's The Prince. Kautilyan realism goes beyond that of modern realists like Hans J Morgenthau. However R.K Kangle, explains, the end justifying the means is only against the enemies. It does not apply to normal personal relationships.

Kautilya emphasized that foreign relations be determined by rational calculation of self-interest rather than by ethical considerations. Kautilya's conception of foreign policy is brilliant, cohesive, comprehensive and logically sound.

In the ultimate analysis, Arthashastra's discourse on foreign policy and diplomatic practices can only be described as a profound timeless classic book on realism, much ahead of its peers written later.

Click here to read the Probe August edition 2021

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