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Kautilya and COVID-19

Dr Kajari Kamal  Writes:

Why is it that Kautilyan principles are invoked only when India tries to outdo its neighbor through an unconventional military endeavour (recent India-Pakistan conflict), or when devising novel ways to upgrade India’s modern warfare capabilities, or when the nation witnesses a dramatic twist  in domestic politics, often by resort to clever means? Surely, the expansion and maintenance of a political entity as large as the Mauryan Empire would have necessitated a wider, more comprehensive, understanding of governance and statecraft.

So, how is Kautilya relevant to this whole episode of COVID-19 playing out as we speak? It is a pandemic which is set to have devastating effect on an exceptionally high proportion of people (janapada). It has begun to cause economic damage with an incalculable long-term impact on state treasury (kosa). True to its definition, it has a huge geographical reach and has paralyzed practically the entire globe, nullifying the option of relying on any external help (mitra). This puts immense pressure on the ruler (swami) and his council of ministers (amatya) to inventively build up its defences (durga) and optimally use force (danda), to draw the nation out of this huge calamity (vyasana).


The seven constituent elements (prakritis) of a state according to Kautilya’s saptanga theory are swami (ruler), amatya (ministers), janapada (territory and population), durga (fort), kosa (treasury), danda (army) and mitra (ally). These are very clearly laid out, their sequence indicating their relative weight, and their utility circumscribed by a generative principle. In effect, what this means is that the ruler is the most important constituent of the state, who with the help of sound counsel from his ministers, is duty bound (rajadharma) to bring about welfare of the people and territory. The ruler and his ministers, emboldened by a robust resource base, plan for the state’s defences. The internally secure environment thus created allows a bountiful treasury which is used to sharpen the force potential, rendering the last prakriti (i.e. the ally) superfluous.

Now, things take a different turn when calamities (vyasana) strike. The seven prakritis correspond to seven organs of the body and it is the health of these that determines the well-being of the ‘body politic’. Contemporaneous with Ayurveda, the Arthashatra borrows the medical vocabulary to make sense of the ‘organic theory of state’. The substantive and logical hierarchy of the prakritis make the calamities of the top order elements most perilous.

In essence, the current pandemic has hit the janapada, and in no small measure. It is one of the higher order prakritis and can potentially have a domino effect on the other four (durgakosadanda and mitra) elements to follow. Janapada has both a material aspect (in terms of agricultural output, forest produce, tax revenue etc.) and a more important non-material aspect, i.e. the morale of the people. Unfortunately, COVID-19 is making a dent, to put it mildly, at both these levels.

Swami (ruler)

It is, undoubtedly, the head of the state who can make or break the nation. It is his political aptitude coupled with the training, competence and efficiency of his ministers which alone have the potential to turn the tide. The current catastrophe presents itself as a shining example of the dialectical engagement between political rationality and normativity – an underlying theme of the treatise, otherwise seen as predominantly realist.

In the happiness of the subjects lies the happiness of the king and in what is beneficial to the subjects his own benefit.” This sutra from the text succinctly brings out the idea that pursuance of power politics (by optimizing prakritis) is innately intertwined with welfare of the people. Strengthening state capacity is the conditio sine qua non for the happiness of the people. Prime Minister Modi’s appeal in his latest address to the nation where he urged that “If situation is not handled in these 21 days, the country and your family could go back 21 years” is perhaps a corollary to the twin idea of rationality and normativity. The comprehensive national power of a nation is supremely predicated on the well being of the people in Kautilyan theory of state.

The Prime Minister’s first address to the nation in the context of the pandemic was fitting too. The ‘Janata curfew’ and the appeal to show gratitude to the health workers battling with the disease, was a big morale booster and an act which indeed awakened a sense of nationalism and pride among the populace.

Contract Theory

While it the highest duty of the ruler to perform the twin tasks of raksha (security) and palana (welfare) of his subjects, the ‘contract theory’ lays down obligations on the part of the people too. The anarchic political environment (matsya-nyaya/law of the fish)) led the people to vest supreme executive powers with the ruler who, in turn, maintained socio-political order. It is the duty of the ruled therefore, to extend continued and robust political legitimacy to the ruler. The Indian tradition of strategic thought hinges on the concept of ‘dharma’ which binds the ruler and the ruled alike.

The ruler enjoys the support of his people through a sound exercise of dandaniti (science of politics). The administration of rod (metaphor for force/punishment) has to be well calibrated. “For the (king), severe with the rod, becomes a source of terror to beings. The king mild with the rod, is despised. The king just with the rod is honoured.”

Indeed, it is the decisions which the ruler takes in consultation with his ministers which is critical. But, what’s perhaps more critical is the support which the people extend to these decisions. Only if the decisions are met with a positive national response can India pull itself out of this calamity. It is for the people to realize that they are the strength of the nation and are obligated to fulfill their part of the contract. It is precisely these sentiments of the ruler and the ruled that can shape the battle against COVID-19 concomitantly as a rational-prudent and an abstract-ideational exercise.

Dr Kajari Kamal, Research Faculty, Takshshila Institution.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI of India.

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