The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

A Constant Game of Outmaneuvering: New Indian Texts on the Relevance of ‘Arthashastra’

“Arthashastra” shows how governance can be described through non-Western notions and that certain rules of politics are eternal.

A Constant Game of Outmaneuvering: New Indian Texts on the Relevance of ‘Arthashastra’
Credit: Depositphotos

Does the New Delhi government follow the policies advocated in “Arthashastra,” an ancient Indian treatise, in its foreign policy? This is a debate that has been going on for quite a while. My answer to this is “no.”

I summarized my views on the subject in a 2020 article for The Diplomat. I also recently spoke about this to the Vaad podcast (in Hindi). In a nutshell, my claim is that while the author of “Arthashastra” was indeed extremely pragmatic in his understanding of governance, this by no means proves that New Delhi’s current foreign policy pragmatism has been influenced by that ancient Sanskrit treatise. (For reservations similar to mine, see the conversation with Partha Chatterjee on page 7-8 in the linked paper.) 

Yet, regardless of my views on the topic, there is a growing body of literature that states the opposite. It would be fair of me, therefore, to refer to some of these new texts and briefly summarize in what ways they affect my understanding of the subject.

Some of the authors that have been writing about the contemporary relevance of “Arthashastra” are Medha Bisht, Pradeep Kumar Gautam, Kajari Kamal, Michael Liebig, Subrata Mitra, and Deepshikha Shahi. At least three of these authors have recently argued that the philosophical tenets of “Arthashastra” remain relevant today: for example, this 2019 article by Pradeep Kumar Gautam, this 2021 commentary by Kamal, and this 2022 text by Medha Bisht. Two years ago, Bisht published a book titled “Kautilya’s Arthashastra. Philosophy of Strategy,” but it is a publication I am admittedly not in possession of. A 2021 brief for ORF by Kajari Kamal and Gokul Sahni searches for traces of inspiration from “Arthashastra” in India’s policy toward China and Pakistan, while a 2022 brief by the same authors attempts to do the same for New Delhi’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Kajari Kamal has also recently published a whole book on the topic, “Kautilya’s Arthashastra: Strategic Cultural Roots of India’s Contemporary Statecraft.” Last year also saw the publication of another book, “Kautilyanomics for Modern Times,” by Sriram Balasubramanian, this time about the relevance of “Arthashastra” for economic thought, but this is not a field I specialize in. 

Yet, after reading a part of those texts I still remain skeptical about applying the solutions from an ancient treatise to a contemporary country’s foreign policy. First, I assume that decisionmakers mostly act based on common sense and interests (national or their own), rather than theories and philosophies. Their pragmatism may be self-taught and instinct-driven. While the same kind of pragmatism can be seen in the pages of “Arthashastra,” this proves that the author of the treatise was a shrewd observer of reality – but not necessarily that he influenced the policymakers of today. 

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Second, I find nearly every case of such a search for relevance a reverse journey. Such texts appear to be more descriptions of India’s foreign policy, or its aspects, which are then being compared to solutions advocated in “Arthashastra” to point out a similarity. This way, the dissimilarities are usually omitted – and the dissimilarities abound, given that “Arthashastra” described the reality of two millennia ago. In my earlier commentary about this, I pointed out that the actor of the treatise advised kings to, for instance, to take care of elephant forests as elephants were the most important tool of warfare. Now, when a similarity is found, is it there because a group of politicians read the “Arthashastra” or because this is simply how states act in international relations?

Take this 2022 commentary by Kajari Kamal and Gokul Sahni about India’s Indo-Pacific strategy:

[A]s all states seek to outmanoeuvre (atisamdhana) their enemies and allies, strength and reliability are important parameters in deciding partners. The Kautilyan dictum [note: Kautilya is believed to be the author of “Arthashastra”] that says pacts and partnerships between a stronger and weaker power inevitably involve the latter ceding control to the former, serves as a caution in choosing allies. It is also a reminder of the ancient roots of contemporary India’s emphasis on strategic autonomy.

According to this argument, India’s attempts at achieving strategic autonomy – a state of not being strategically dependent on any other power – would have their final roots in treatises like the “Arthashastra.” In other words, such readings could help understand why India does not choose to ally with the United States, as the latter remains a stronger power. 

However, is this not a dilemma faced by nearly every country – including those where “Arthashastra” remains virtually unknown? Are not the governments of weaker countries usually aware (to various degrees) that alliances come with conditions, and that a stronger ally may dominate the weaker one? Don’t countries usually decide about forging an alliance depending on their reading (correct or not) of the threats they face? One government may assume that it can face a threat alone (as India does with China and Pakistan) and that allying with a stronger country (the U.S.) is maybe not vitally necessary. Another government may assume that as it cannot face its threats alone, that it is still better to ally with a great power, despite the requirements that come with it. And so indeed international relations are a constant game of outmaneuvering – everywhere, not just with regards to Indian foreign policy.

As for those points of some of the newer publications on “Arthashastra” that I found convincing and useful for myself, I would so far list at least two:

First: The fact that certain leading Indian policymakers indeed knew the contents of “Arthashastra” and sometimes praised it. Kamal’s recent book points out, for instance, that India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, spoke highly of “Arthashastra” as “a pioneering text of intelligence studies.” This, by the way, is ironic at least on two counts: Nehru is usually seen as more idealistic and normative in his approach to foreign policy (especially compared to the realist author of “Arthashastra”), and intelligence gathering on China’s actions turned out to be one of the biggest shortcomings of Nehru’s rule. Irony aside, this still means that the contents of “Arthashastra” are known to Indian leaders (or at least some of them).

Second: Proving that the complexity of international relations can be described through terms borrowed from “Arthashastra” (not just through Western languages, as it is usually done). Kajari Kamal and Gokul Sahni’s 2021 commentary, which I liked more than the above-quoted 2022 one, is a good example of this. Both India’s relations with China, as well as those with Pakistan, have been aptly covered here using the Sanskrit terms taken from “Arthashastra.” This is not a mean feat, as we usually seem to be under an impression that the realm of international relations cannot be described without the usage of words from Western languages (such as realpolitik, raison d’état, or external balancing) which in turn leads many to think that the Western world is somehow better at understanding political processes.

Thus, “Arthashastra” shows how governance can be described through non-Western notions, that non-Western commentators of the past were as skilled in analyzing politics as their Western counterparts, and that certain rules of politics, including foreign policy, are eternal and universal. This is already a lot. However, I still fail to see evidence that the ancient treatise serves as a playbook for conducting India’s foreign policy today.