Does India need to no longer be an Ashokan republic, but a Chanakyan one?

We should really debate this question raised by Sanjeev Sanyal. It questions basic premise of idea of India since independence.

The author says we have adopted values of  Ashoka’s republic who actually saw disintegration of Maurya empire. Ideally, we should be following Chanakya’s ideals who shaped the Mauryan empire at the first place:

Our Republic was established on this day in 1950. So, it is a good day to re-evaluate the nature of the Indian 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 India has ever produced?

Kautilya, also called Chanakya, is often called India’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.

Time to revisit?

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 Indian 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.

This actually got me thinking. Whatever little I have read, this is not the complete story. To say Ashoka let things just disintegrate does not do justice to the might of his empire.  He was hardly weak. Post Chanakya foundations, Ashoka actually built Mauryan empire into this mega empire. The reason why Ashoka let the empire disintegrate was that he realised the ill-effects of the empire he had built. For all its power and awe, people hated the size and ruthlessness about it. Post Kalinga warfare, Ashoka’s remorseness and ground realisation made him really weary and wobble. All his ideas about his power suddenly became powder. He made a complete turn around and wanted to be this kind and humanly kingdom. Perhaps a message our founders wanted to deliver as well.

One can compare Ashoka’s empire to state of any other world hegemon like US of today. There is this commonality to all these empires.

Nevertheless, it will be a great discussion to get into. Why were Ashoka’s ideals chosen at the first empire? I am sure there must be stuff written on this. Will be grateful, if someone can point to literature on this topic..



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