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.

The latest advertisement for nuclear weapons

Here’s what has happened in the past few months.

North Korea demonstrated that it has nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them to the United States. After it did that, the president of the United States set aside age-old policy and decided to meet the North Korean leader, ahead of possible lifting of sanctions against that country.

Iran froze — or perhaps slowed down — its nuclear weapons programme because it signed a deal with the United States and Europe in 2015. After it did that, the president of the United States reneged on the deal, advised Iran not to pursue nuclear weapons, and is coercing the international community to re-impose sanctions.

The message is simple and inescapable. Possessing a nuclear arsenal is necessary if you wish to resist being bullied by the world’s great powers. Donald Trump’s actions are an advertisement for nuclear weapons.

He’s not the first US president to do show countries around the world the value of possessing nuclear weapons. Previous US presidents invaded Iraq (that didn’t have a nuclear bomb) ostensibly to punish Saddam Hussein for sheltering al Qaeda terrorists, while bankrolling Pakistan, that was sheltering al Qaeda terrorists, but also had a nuclear arsenal. Under another US president, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi who had given up his nuclear programme, came to a sticky end.

Therein lies the root cause of the failure of nuclear non-proliferation. It invests too much energy in technical compliance and technology controls, even as the NPT-sanctified nuclear weapons states create powerful, perhaps existential incentives for the possession of a nuclear arsenal.

It’s now almost certain — even more than before — that the Iranians will develop a nuclear arsenal. That’ll cause the Saudis to bring their arsenal out of the closet. That in turn might cause Erdogan’s Turkey to want one too.

It will be tremendously foolish to continue to flog the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty as a meaningful way to reduce nuclear risks. A more promising way forward for this century would be to attempt a Global No-First Use (GNFU) framework aimed to reduce risks than limit ownership.

India’s plagiarism policy is facepalm

I could’nt believe my eyes when I read in this week’s Science magazine. Here’s an excerpt from Pallava Bagla’s report on UGC’s new plagiarism policy:

The new policy creates four tiers for addressing plagiarism, which is defined by UGC India as “the practice of taking someone else’s work or idea and passing them as one’s own.” The first tier, for what it calls “similarities up to 10%,” would carry no penalty. The second tier, in which 10% to 40% of a document is plagiarized, would require students to submit a revised manuscript and force faculty members to withdraw the plagiarized paper. In cases where 40% to 60% of the document is plagiarized, a student would be suspended for a year and the faculty member would forfeit an annual pay raise and be prohibited from supervising students for 2 years. Students who plagiarize more than 60% of their thesis would be kicked out of the program, while the penalties for faculty members would be extended to a loss of 2 years of pay increases and a 3-year ban on supervising students.[Science]

This is not lenient. It’s breathtaking. By failing to seriously penalise persons who copy as much as 40% of their work, the UGC is effectively condoning massive levels of plagiarism. Whether or not universities are able to catch and act against those who plagiarise, the signal this sends to students and the academic community is perverse. It’s telling them — “it’s okay to copy!”

Now, plagiarism is rampant in Indian academia, a manifestation of the rot that has set in our education system and intellectual life. Instead of attempting to stem that rot and turn things around, the UGC seems to have decided that it might as well legitimise the copying culture. This, to put it mildly, is not expected of the regulator of higher education.

Plagiarism is theft. Condoning theft perverts the settings of the moral compass of young minds. The cascading effects of this will be disastrous for Indian society.

What should the UGC have done? Set the plagiarism threshold very low. The tiniest plagiarism fetches a warning. At 10% you get kicked out. Then announce a transition window of two years to allow everyone to understand and adjust to a new, stringent regime.

As it stands, the proposed plagiarism policy is not, as V S Ramamurthy asks, merely “a joke”. It’s a license to copy.

Who made Xi move half-way across the country?

Ananth Krishnan points out that Xi Jinping’s decision to travel halfway across his own country to meet Narendra Modi (who had travelled completely out of his own country) for an informal summit in Wuhan is remarkable, and no one in Beijing expected it. It’s been quite a journey for their India policy, from threatening to order military attacks to perhaps ordering a six pack for a chillout session between the two leaders this month.

Were they really impressed by India’s resolute stance of not backing down at Doklam, of not signing up for the Belt and Road Initiative? Perhaps. What really made Xi travel halfway across his country is a man halfway across the world. A certain Mr Donald Trump. Washington is putting extreme pressure on Beijing on two counts: North Korea, and more importantly on trade.

It took Trump to remind Beijing that their projection of power ultimately relies on their economy, and that in turn relies on the goodwill of China’s trading partners. Most importantly, on the United States. A trade war will not only have unsettling effects on the Chinese economy in the short term, it can take the wind out of China’s economic sails in the longer term. The wise men in Beijing ought to have expected this. If they didn’t, then their wisdom is overrated. If they expected this, then they ought to have cautioned Xi Jinping against getting all on the front foot and antagonising India, Japan and Vietnam all at once. If they did and Xi didn’t heed their advice, then his astuteness is perhaps more limited than is made out to be.

In any case, India must expect that Xi’s front-footedness is China’s long-term strategy. Trump’s mercurial policy positions have caused Beijing to buy time and space by reaching out to India and Japan. The moment the pressure is off — for Trump can as quickly change his mind — it’s likely that Beijing will resume pushing the envelope again. New Delhi can certainly hope that Beijing has learned that it is not a good idea to antagonise your neighbours as you set out to confront your distant adversary. Yet if you were sitting in Beijing you might reckon it’s important to suppress your neighbour’s power to create trouble, before you confront your main adversary.

It is in India’s interests to have better relations with China and the United States than they have with each other. So the chillout at Wuhan is a good thing. Modi, however, must be keenly aware that a China reset in Delhi does not mean a India reset in Beijing. There’s nothing to indicate China’s fundamental approach towards India has changed. Or that it will change. For now all the chilling out is contingent on the extent and duration that the United States maintains pressure on China.