Chanakya is not a synonym for amoral politics

The name “Chanakya” is a favourite with political enthusiasts, who appropriate it as a nickname for themselves, and with political commentators who anoint the latest big fish in the political arena as “Chanakya”. The modern history of the use of the term perhaps dates back to Jawaharlal Nehru who adopted the pseudonym in a 1937 essay criticising himself. Today it is being used to describe the current BJP president, Amit Shah, for his leave-no-prisoners style of politics.

It is wrong to confuse Chanakya with amoral domestic politics. Not because ancient Indian political philosophy is irrelevant to contemporary politics — it is not — but because there is a difference between international and domestic politics. To read Chanakya out of context would be to arrive at erroneous conclusions. All politics may be about power but there are important moral differences between its use in international relations and domestic politics.

Chanakya’s proposals for amoral politics properly applies to international relations: to relations among sovereigns in his time, and among sovereign states today. Because there is no overarching world government, it is consistent with raja dharma to take the amoral route to power. Maximising one’s own power with respect to other (sovereigns) is the ultimate goal, because that is the surest way to protect one’s own independence, values and way of life. This is similar to what modern-day realists believe and practice.

However, when it comes to politics within a country, use of power is circumscribed by morality. Even in Chanakya’s days, a king could not violate raja dharma, nor could his subjects violate their common and specific dharmas. The Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata — where Bhishma does an AMA with the Pandavas while lying on his deathbed of arrows— goes into great detail on raja dharma, and how a king must rule. There was no written constitution then, but constitutional morality existed and bound the king (and his government) in the form of raja dharma and the dharma shastras.

We should not expect twenty-first century moral values in ancient moral codes, but the point is that moral codes existed and placed normative bounds on the actions of the king and government. In other words, in the domestic context, Chanakya’s prescriptions were and must be read within the constraints of a constitutional morality. Furthermore, to apply Chanakya’s strategies in business management and interpersonal relations would be wrong except where the law of the jungle prevails.

Raja dharma today is to be found in the written Constitution of India and the legal framework it has created.

People who breach this dharma cannot be called Chanakya. To do so would be to profoundly misunderstand a very sophisticated political philosophy.

Aftertaste. Both Voldemort and Vijay Dinanath Chauhan make the same mistake, as I wrote in my Pax Indica column some years ago. My Reading the Arthashastra archive has a few posts on how to relate Chanakya’s philosophy to modern times.

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