India is in the midst of a national health emergency of an unprecedented scale. Once again, it shines a spotlight on decision-making of the political leadership, and once again, the political elites could do well by taking a leaf out of Kautilya’s Arthashastra.
The catastrophic scale of the Covid-19 second wave calls into question the State’s basic duty of providing raksha (security) and palana (welfare). Rajdharma (duty of the king), as espoused in the ancient treatise, throws light on a scientific process of decision-making with an ethical underpinning, looped together by the text’s philosophical foundation (Anvikshiki). This, perhaps, is the need of the hour.
Right decisions at the right time is Kautilya’s mantra of success. He ranks good counsel (mantrashakti) higher than the State’s armed might (prabhavashakti), and the power of bravery (utsahshakti). But, how should one arrive at a decision, and for what end?
The four core sciences outlined in the treatise are Philosophy (Anvikshiki), Vedas (Trayi), Economics (Varta), and Political Science (Dandaniti), and they broadly correspond to the text’s trivarga, or three aims — artha (material well-being), dharma (spiritual good) and kama (pleasures). Each of the sciences lends value to efficient statecraft but it is Anvikshiki (science of inquiry), the lamp of all sciences, that illuminates the worth of the branches of knowledge and their relative weight in a given concrete situation. It is the power of critical thinking and reasoning alone through enumeration in Sankhya, breaking down, synthesis in Yoga, and pure empiricism in Lokayat that shapes a sound decision.
One wheel alone does not turn
Rulership can be carried out with the help of associates. The final decision taken by the sovereign is the last step of a systematic and logical process of policy-making. A matter of critical importance is discussed with the ‘councillors’ and ‘council of ministers’ and the king decides on the course of action based on what the majority among them declare or what is favourable to the success of the work.
The opinion of the ministers is important for two reasons. One, they are responsible for the successful execution of all undertakings, protection against calamities, and overall development of settled lands. Two, they are the ‘go-to’ source for credible information gathering. The role of the ministers, as the ‘eyes’ of the ruler, is clearly outlined – providing knowledge of the unperceived, corroborating what is known, removing doubt in case of two possible alternatives, and furnishing complete information on a partly known fact. The preceptors and ministers were also tasked with providing checks and balances for the ruler who may potentially err in performing his duties by ‘pricking him with the goad’.
The other set of inputs in decision-making was provided by the ‘councillors’. All undertakings were preceded by consultations with three or four councillors who would give their opinion individually and jointly, along with reasoned justification for holding them. This helps bring about the threefold affairs of the king: directly perceived (by the king), unperceived (through the ministers), and inferred (evidence-based deductions).
The buck stops here – swamin
Kautilya lays a premium on the political performance of the ruler (swamin); the king and his rule is the sum-total of the constituents of the State. Therefore, the very first book of the treatise is dedicated to the training of the ruler – casting out of the group six enemies (lust, anger, greed, pride, arrogance, and foolhardiness) for cognitive clarity, cultivating intellect through association with elders, acquiring discipline and a scientific temper (through intentness on truth, reflection, rejection of false views, and understanding through retention), keeping a watchful eye by means of spies, securing the well-being of the subjects, and maintaining the duties of the subjects by performing his own duties.
Perhaps, the two most important aspects of Kautilyan rulership, which are imparted through training in science, are logic and ethics. In a consideration regarding calamity of the king and kingship, a ruler deviating from science is a graver misfortune than a blind king; the latter may be well advised by his associates but the former ruins the kingdom and himself through injustice.
But what holds the key in a calamity is a timely decision; not impulsive, but quick. The king is advised to hear an urgent matter and not put it off because an affair postponed becomes difficult, or even impossible, to settle.
How Prime Minister Narendra Modi has fared in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and the related challenges will finally be judged by the people in the next Lok Sabha election, which is more than three years away. Currently, it seems that he has kept his distance from the Kautilyan precepts. The quality of advice from the ministers and councillors is questionable. The other is one of misidentification. The ruled are identified and dealt with according to their support to the ruling party, rather than garnering the support of all through reasoned, rational actions. Permitting the Kumbh Mela tells the story. This is fine for electoral politics but is out of place for governance. Because governance requires the pursuit of Yogakshema, the welfare of all its citizens through righteous conduct strongly predicated on empirical soundness.
Furthermore, decision-making should not equate the opposition to the enemy of the State and deal with them as such. The pervasive use of the National Security Act being the prime example. People are being denied access to the truth by a media that has acquired a reputation for pliancy. Controlling informational access and purveying the facts has not been dented even during the health emergency. Attempts to hide and contest the extent of governance failure will surely sully India’s image both abroad and among its own citizens.
It is perhaps overdue that India’s ‘swamin’ acknowledges that the buck stops with him and owns up to mistakes in decision-making, even if he is not directly responsible, due to poor advice or other unknown and uncontrollable reasons produced by a virus that is mutating and spreading at a speed beyond human ability to check. Such an admission will allow for altering the course of future actions and hopefully assist India to recover better from the ongoing tragedy.
Kautilya rightly reminds us that in the happiness of the subject lies the happiness of the king and what is beneficial to the subjects is to his own benefit. Admitting to mistakes along with embrace of objective and sound decision-making will generate better quality of interventions. More importantly, it may repair and arrest the waning confidence of Indians in their swamin at a time of a grave national catastrophe.
Dr Kajari Kamal is Research Faculty at Takshashila Institution. Lt Gen Prakash Menon is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, and former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.