Kautilya’s Realism

Nirmal Jindal
July 28, 2019


Image Courtesy: Regional Rapport

Kautilya, popularly known as Chanakya, was the first Realist thinker whose thoughts were critical to the evolution of the theories of statecraft, diplomacy, strategy, and power. He had written Arthashastra in 300 B.C., much before various western thinkers like Machiavelli, Hobbes and Thucydides had written about Realism. Henry Kissinger, in his book ‘World Order’ refers to the Arthashastra as a work that lays out the requirements of power, which is the dominant reality in politics. Kissinger viewed the Arthashastra as ‘a combination of Machiavelli and Clausewitz’. Max Weber, a German sociologist, called it, “truly radical Machiavellianism”. However, as Kautilya wrote Arthashastra centuries before Machiavelli, and as such, Machiavelli could be referred to as the European Chanakya but not the other way round.

Kautilya’s Realism is perceived to be different from the western notions of Realism, and also more apt to the countries of the global South which have traditionally focused on the hard aspects of security since their independence. In the contemporary world as the meaning and dimension of security is transforming, there is a need to revisit Kautilya’s theory of statecraft, diplomacy, and war in order to understand the nuances of security and power pertinent to the countries of the global South. Kautilya, unlike western Realists, adopted a holistic concept of security. In western Realism, war is considered a necessary evil in the anarchical international system, and there is no place for moral values. Kautilya provides an alternate perspective as his theory of power and security is not devoid of morality. He does not consider war essential in achieving state objectives. As per Kautilya, the chief objective of the state should be the welfare of the people. He gave primary importance to a strong treasury for good governance and having a strong defense capability.

Kautilya wanted rulers to aspire to be a Vijigishu (the most powerful king or hegemon) for peace and security. In Kautilya’s parlance, a Vijigishu is the one who desires to conquer other territories. The most obvious import that one derives from the term is one of military expansionism. However, when Kautilya refers to territory, he attributes its meaning to not only the physical territory but also psychological influence and even physical domination. He was against open warfare as it could be very destructive, expensive, and unpredictable. On the contrary, he proposed concealed warfare or secret warfare by other means like intelligence, spies, and deception. He argued that in case a state failed to achieve its objective by methods of Sadgunayas (Sandhi, Samshraya, Davdhibhava, Vigraha, and Asana) and Upayas (Sama, Dana, Danda, Bheda), only then should it resort to war, and only under extreme circumstances. Therefore, he preferred diplomacy and peace to war apropos national interest.

Kautilya prioritized economic development above all and considered it as the backbone of good governance and defense capability of states. A king’s duty in a state is people’s welfare, their protection, and the rule of law. The king’s power is based not only on the expansion of territory but on the loyalties of his subjects. He also believed that the people of any captured state should be treated well. The history of international relations shows that Europeans fought the imperialist wars for the purpose of plunder, loot, and exploitation of human and natural resources. The westerners or Islamic rulers committed atrocities on the people captured during wars. In this regard, Kautilya’s theory is distinct as he never considered plunder, loot, or exploitation of the people as factors in the invasion of territories. In Kautilya’s assessment, the internal stability of states was essential, as internal instability could be more dangerous than external aggressions.

The theory of democracy and good governance is very significant for the countries of the global South which are facing a deficit in good governance and development and are therefore facing serious internal instability, insurgencies, and conflicts which in turn poses a threat to the very fabric of the state system. The world has witnessed that the erstwhile USSR, one of the most powerful countries in the world, disintegrated due to internal instability. The security of the state does not only mean military security but generating security structures from within by establishing a stable political and robust economic system. Kautilya indeed proposed a strong army for the purpose of diplomacy and balance of power.
Kautilya’s understanding of anarchy was reflected in his Mandala theory which is based on the political assumptions that the Vijigishu (ruler) is the center of the Mandala and his immediate neighbors are his Ari or enemy and state next to the immediate neighbors is Vijigishu’s friend or Mitra. Elements of this logic are found in India’s foreign policy. In the present context, India’s foreign relations can be understood in terms of Kautilya’s Mandala theory. India’s relations with countries like Afghanistan and Russia can be categorized as friendly against Pakistan and China which are generally categorized as antagonistic. India’s Look East Policy, BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization reflect India’s interest to develop broader partnerships transcending its immediate neighborhood, as these partnerships are mutually beneficial, unlike alliances during the Cold War in which the two superpowers used their allies against each other. Therefore, India’s policy of polycentrism and multipolarity aims at diplomacy and balance of power.

In the post World War II world scenario, India has been against the concept of Vijigishu, as it has believed in a democratized international system and wants each country to act as an independent actor in the international system. It is for this reason that India adopted the non-alignment policy to keep itself away from the Cold War conflicts and focus on economic development. India developed its nuclear capability, particularly aiming at deterrence, and that has changed its image and power position in global politics. Even, under current circumstances, India’s decision to desist from open warfare with countries is symbolic of its desire to consolidate its growing power by creating partners at the regional and global levels.

*** The author is an Associate Professor at Satyawati College, Delhi University ***