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New Delhi
Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Interview on “Practical Application of Kautilya’s Principles in India’s Military and Political System”

Answers by: Commodore R S Vasan (Retd),
DG, Chennai Centre for China Studies


  1. Could you elaborate on how India’s military and political personnel have practically applied Kautilya’s doctrines, such as Rajamandala, Saptanga theory, Saadgunya Niti, and Matsya-Nyaya, in contemporary contexts, especially in the last year?

While for a long time, Kautilya’s teachings were overshadowed by the western thoughts and lack of interest and even ignorance in India’s past strategic culture, there seems to be a new awakening in the last few decades to study Kautilya’s Arthashastra and analyse how relevant these teachings are in the present day context.

There are no doubts that each of the headings that you have mentioned form the framework of the strategic postulations in the treatise on statecraft which include politics, economy, governance, domestic and international relations, waging of war, managing peace and such like. I will very briefly touch up on the headings mentioned by you in terms of its applicability  more specifically in the last few years under the Modi Government. The military on its part has started paying increasing attention to Kautilya and are evaluating the validity of concepts . The study of Kautilya has been institutionalised  and there are more discussions and references today . More importantly, it  is not that the prescriptions are blindly followed.  These are brought up to current standards based on where we stand and that ensures that the responses are commensurate with present day challenges in our neighbourhood and  in other parts of the world that impact India’s ascendency.

Rajamandala Theory. While there is no Raja as, we have adopted a democratic form of government, the relevance of the elected leader and his actions decide on how India has progressed in the chosen form of self governance. The theory of one’s neighbour mostly being inimical and the neighbour’s neighbour being friendly has by and large stood the test of times as witnessed in history. When we look at the political geography, the smaller neighbours of India viewed India as the big brother meddling in their affairs and not encouraging them to prosper. However, the recent initiatives of SAGAR and neighbourhood first policies have challenged the view that your immediate neighbours are necessarily enemies. The implicit conclusion would be that there are ways in which our neighbours need to be managed knowing fully the challenges in a complex neighbourhood. Except for Pakistan and China with whom we have  had adversarial relations, the other smaller neighbours have had to work  their way in a competing environment of two big Asian neighbours and that has not been easy.

Also in the Mandala, in many cases there are common borders between more than just two neighbours and that would require an analysis of how these shared borders shape the foreign policy of  the concerned Government. For example, the tri junction between India, China and Bhutan who are all neighbours posed significant challenges during the Doklam crisis in 2017. This has made it imperative for India to work more closely with its long term ally Bhutan which does not have diplomatic relations with China. The happenings  in the last fortnight or so clearly tells us how Bhutan has become very important for our own security. So the increased assistance of 10 crores and holding of hands of the small neighbour would pay  rich dividends. Similar approach is adopted in nurturing our neighbourhood countries who are increasingly being wooed by China with investments and inducements.

On the seven components of the state as per the saptanga theory, they include Swami( the Emperor), Amataya (the council of ministers), Janapada that defines the physical territory of a state, Durga (a Fort or fortified area for ensuring the sovereignty of our borders) , Kosha (or the treasury or the economic potential of the country), Danda (which is regulations enforced by justice or force) and Mitra (which is to identify friends and nurture such relations). All these would continue to be part of the nation’s governance in the modified form as required by a democratic nation.  In simple terms, within the borders there needs to be visionary  leadership  to manage its borders, its people, and provide for the development by ensuring availability of funds both public and private. The leadership has to work to protect its long term interest by engaging with both big and small powers. The need to secure its interests both in  its immediate neighbourhood and extended shores can hardly be reemphasised. Fortification of the borders today is not just deployment of troops but encompasses modern technologies and measures to ensure that there are no surprises. This demands innovative strategy and tactical procedures. The cyber domain is the most important domain when a nation is looking to secure its interests both on the battlefield and off the battlefield. The new disruptive technology would change the equations that can be game changers. The chip wars and the increased use of drones has made it evident that one has to be ahead of the competition and rehearse for contingencies .


  1. How do you perceive Kautilya’s Arthashastra influencing India’s military strategy and geopolitical decisions in the modern era?

There was a time when there were uncharitable remarks by the west about the lack of strategic  culture in India. However, the works of Dr. Shamashastry in the Oriental Research Institute  in  Mysore led to the discovery of Arthashastra  which was  printed in 1905 as a sanskrit edition. The English version saw the light in 1919  and researchers and analysts around the world  were made aware of the rich work of Kautilya.The actions of the successive governments does indicate that there was progressive adoption of many prescriptions of Rajadharma .  One could go to the extent of saying that some of these prescriptions and ethos are ingrained in the genes of Indian rulers and the handling of both domestic and foreign policies more so in the last few decades has stablised our growth and security in a complex global scenario.


  1. Can you provide specific examples from the past year of how Kautilya’s principles have been integrated into India’s military approach?

It is quite clear that the phase and tenets of war have by and large been dictated by common sense and political realism.  When viewed in the backdrop of Kautilya’s way of handling situations, it is clear the handling of Doklam in 2017 and the Galwan crisis in 2020 which has  shown no signs of thawing despite some 29 meetings has been mature . It has been done with full military preparedness while continuing to  engage in discussions. This has also led to increased alliances with the like minded, again reinforcing the belief that Kautilya is alive and kicking .


  1. How has the concept of Saadgunya Niti been adapted by Indian political leaders to navigate complex domestic challenges and maintain stability within the state?

The six methods of foreign policy as prescribed by Kautilya included Peace  (Samdhi), War  (Vigraha), Wait and See or Observe, Introspect, Evaluate  (Asana), Coercive Diplomacy  (Yana), Alliance building  (Samshrya), Diplomatic duplicity  (Dvaihibhava)

By and large the handling of the foreign policy is a mix of all the six guna’s and adopted  in  a calibrated manner either individually or collectively. The Asana prescribed has many components of wait and see, observe, Introspect, evaluate depending on the developing geo political and military developments. India has navigated in a deft manner despite some of the disadvantages of economic differential with the adversary an the global wars that have made it difficult to sustain the tempo of economic growth . India has done well and has emerged as a globally important leader more so after the G20 summit that was conducted last year. This has demonstrated India’s ability to adopt the other Gunas viz.,  Coercive Diplomacy (Yana), Alliance building (Samshrya),Diplomatic duplicity (Dvaihibhava) in equal measure.


  1. How do contemporary Indian leaders balance Kautilya’s emphasis on the welfare of the people with the demands of national security and international relations?

Throughout human history, there are no doubts that any ruler or leader who ignored the welfare of the people would not succeed in taking the nation forward. People are central to  the process of nation building which has both developmental objectives and security within the borders and beyond national boundaries. With the shrinking size of the global village, it has become necessary for the Governments to be dynamic, progressive and imaginative in aligning with the global aspirations and equip their own citizens to contribute first and foremost  as  committed Indian citizens  who will lend a shoulder to the process of development. The role of the diaspora again is an important facet of maintaining our good external relations and also to ensure that this diaspora which is increasing in number act as Ambassadors and help India to achieve its milestones by 2047.


  1. In what ways do you believe Kautilya’s emphasis on statecraft and the welfare of the people has influenced India’s domestic governance and policymaking processes?

With the existing structure of the Centre and the States, there are challenges of having a uniform method of domestic governance  and policy making. With the diversity of India in terms of languages, culture, geographical features  and ideological differences, there are huge challenges in the process of making policies. The example of the CAA and the GST which was adopted are illustrative of the challenges faced in shaping policies for the country.

There can be  no dispute about the centrality of the welfare of the people to nation building, security and prosperity. So the chosen leaders will have to work imaginatively to balance the requirements of national security which is the foremost prerequisite for a stable environment that thereafter allows the chosen leaders to invest in human security/development matching resources available while constantly looking at improving availability of funds and resources.  People first is a principle that can not be compromised by any Government, more so in democracies where the performance is constantly evaluated.  Ensuring that people are happy ,contented. energetic, motivated and prosperous  people within secure borders  would be the primary focus and from that point of view, India by and large has been constantly working at alleviation of poverty, improving living and health standards and for providing incentives to the young people who are the strength of this country.


Interviewed By:
Kritika Rajput
Research Associate,
Red Lantern Analytica

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