The Changing World Order
The nineteenth century marked the demise of Europe’s feudal empires which were replaced by modern sovereign nation states. The foundation stone for this was laid by the Treaty of Westphalia which recognised the sovereignty of nation states over their population ending the Thirty Years’ War. This was followed by the race to acquire colonies across the world. The coveted seat of India was won by Great Britain which dominated world politics till the twentieth century before the two World Wars shook the world making the century one of the bloodiest epochs in human existence. After World War II, the world order shifted to a bi-polar structure with the United States (US) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) contesting for dominance. Probably because of the memory of recent wars and the finality of a nuclear catastrophe, the Cold War was fought only on the frontiers of hyper espionage, arms race, space exploration, and Afghanistan, before it came to an abrupt end in 1991 when the USSR disintegrated into Russia and fourteen other states. As a result, the twenty-first century world order was unipolar with the US as its hegemon.
In the third decade of this century, the unipolar international order seems to be giving way to a much more volatile system of multi-polarity with the mushrooming of various clusters and power blocs to maintain the balance of power. Though the US remains a superpower, there is a definite narrowing of this gap by other rising powers, most notably China. The failure to present a concerted global response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the hasty withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan leaving the country in utter chaos, only corroborate the apparent flux in the global order shifting the unipolar setup to a more volatile, multi-polar one. As if taking a cue from these developments, Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s adventures in Ukraine seem to portend the end of the current world order. Russian action in Ukraine and the world’s reaction to it would be a defining feature of the global geo-politics in times to come. It serves as both a perpetrator and a corroborator of the changing world order. These may well be a strong signal for other powers for indulging in more concrete actions towards their claims, case in point being China’s assertions in Taiwan.
These developments present new challenges as well as opportunities for middle and rising powers such as India. India’s rise in such a dynamic world order will be dictated by its ability to leverage its traditional position as a leader of the developing world. The long drawn debate about India’s lack of a strategic culture for want of any major theories addressing the issues of strategy in a systematic manner have been peremptorily quashed by recent studies. Ancient Indian texts such as Kautilya’s Arthashashtra (KA), Thrivalluwar’s Thirukkural and other relevant treatises provide the firm bedrock of strategic theorisation that can arguably be considered to serve as the habitus of Indian strategic thought. KA stands out in this as a magnum opus on grand strategy. The term ‘grand strategy’ here is inclusively understood to mean ‘the combination of national resources and capabilities — military, diplomatic, political, economic, cultural and moral – that are deployed in the service of national security. Kautilya’s Arthashashtra holds good as the ‘object of analyses’ against the tenets of strategic culture as propounded by Alastair Iain Johnston1.
A systematic approach to analyse Kautilya’s line of reasoning and apply the ancient knowledge system to present day challenges may hold the key at formulating India’s policies in the changing world order. While it may be helpful to refer to this ancient knowledge system to grapple with modern problems, one must be wary of extrapolating concepts out of context. While knowledge may be eternal, its application must take cognizance of the present technological epoch and enhanced human capability leading to further complexity. That being said, the tools at disposal may have changed, the human nature remains the same.
The Arthashashtra: A Unique Blend of Normativity and Realism
‘Arthashashtra’ in simple terms is understood to be the science of statecraft. Without negating this simplified perception, the Arthashashtra is a much wider and nuanced concept that can be defined as the science of acquisition and protection of wealth2. KA serves as a manual for the monarch to carry out his duties in order to ensure the security and progress of the empire. It propounds a politico-economic conception of statecraft. The King or swami is duty-bound to embark on conquests with the aim to garner more land for his kingdom. The subjects in turn, contribute their toil and enterprise upon the new lands to increase the overall production of the state thereby resulting in a flourishing economy. The political act of conquest results in economic advancement. In the same vein, a flourishing economy directly translates to a thickening of the royal treasury which further enables the ruler to undertake more campaigns. Moreover, a boom in the economy leads to a better lifestyle and welfare of the subjects which grants greater legitimacy to the rule of the monarch. Thus, economic progress leads to the political action of conquest and consolidation of the king’s rule by granting greater legitimacy.
This shall become clearer in later sections. As described in KA, the king must pursue yogakshema, which is a combination of two Sanskrit words – yoga which means motion (hiking or campaign) and kshema meaning rest (inactivity or consolidation). Yogakshema may be considered as a cycle of progressive conquests and consolidation wherein a successful conquest is followed by a period of consolidation over the gains made and improvement of the lifestyle of people before embarking on to the next campaign. The enduring goal is safeguarding of the state’s territorial integrity and ensuring the well-being of citizens. To this effect, Kautilya remarks, “In the happiness of the subject lies the happiness of the king and in what is beneficial to the subjects, his own benefit. What is dear to him is not beneficial to the king, but what is dear to his subjects is beneficial to him.”3 In this framework, KA as a manual on statecraft is highly normative in its prescription for dealing with various challenges for reasons of pure political expediency and raison d’etat. Kautilya’s overall strategic preferences resonate with a structural realist model which involves precise calculations of expected outcomes of various choices available depending on national resources and capabilities. However, contrary to the Western ideals of a structural realist model, it also incorporates political normativity in the form of citizens’ welfare (prajaranjan) as a major goal. Kautilya also makes a strong distinction of success from power. Gross national power may be increased manifolds by fostering a healthy body politik (saptanga) but success would only be achieved when such growth leads to overall improvement in the lives of the subjects.
Borrowing heavily from the ancient discipline of Ayurveda, Kautilya describes the state as an organic ‘body politik’ comprising various organs that must function in harmony for the whole (body politik) to remain healthy. There are seven prakritis or elements of state – swami (the ruler), amatya (the ministers or counsel), janapada (the citizens and natural resources), durg (forts or defences), kosha (treasury), danda (military) and mitra (ally). These seven prakritis are hierarchically placed as per their precedence in the overall health of the state. A minor abrasion or shortcoming in a higher element will have a much greater detrimental effect on the elements that lie beneath it.
The king or swami holds the most important position as the head of the monarchical state. As the dandadhar (wielder of the rod) he has been entrusted with the authority of the sovereign decision maker responsible for curtailing matsya nyaya (law of the jungle) within the empire. As the interstate realm continued to exist in an anarchical state, the king must also ensure the security of the state from external aggression as well as embark on conquests for acquisition of more land and resources. Primacy has been granted to selection and training of the king. He must possess highest standards of self-discipline and must be free from the six follies of human nature – lust, greed, anger, pride, arrogance and foolhardiness. After selecting the suitable candidate with the above mentioned qualities, he must be thoroughly trained in the four sciences of statecraft – philosophy, vedas, economics, and political science.
The king is closely followed by the ministers (amatyas) who serve as the eyes of the organic state. It is the duty of the ministers to keep themselves aware of the situation on ground and project the correct picture to the king. As the decision support apparatus, the ministers counsel the king on the basis of their expertise and accessibility to relevant data regarding various facets of their own state and that of other states in the rajamandala. KA talks about employing spies to discern about the health of the adversary and/or the ally state before deciding upon the measure to be adopted in foreign policy. The king may or may not align his decision with the opinion of his counselors.
The third prakriti, janapada subsumes the sum total of the people and all natural resources within the territory of the state. It represents the firm feet of the body politik upon which the entire state rests. Kautilya proposes that the real strength of the kingdom inheres in the villages and cities of the kingdom. The king must invest in the betterment of the people in order to secure his position and for the overall attainment of yogakshema. Every successful conquest must be followed by a period of quiet consolidation during which the king refrains from any foreign embroilment and focuses on translating the fruits of his victory into concrete measures for improving the life of his subjects. This is aimed at boosting the economy that results in broadening of the treasury which eventually allows the king to embark on the next conquest with a bigger force. Thus, KA propounds a welfare state motivated by pure raison d’ etat. Placement of human resource development before economy and military is pivotal in understanding Kautilyan reasoning.
Durg represents the forts along the boundary of the kingdom which are meant as defensive bastions against any foreign aggression. Defence (durg) of the kingdom takes precedence over economic growth (kosha) and the king must be ready to overstretch his resources in order to defend the state. It is the duty of the ruler to ensure that the security of the state is guaranteed before he embarks on any adventure.
Kosha or treasury has a direct impact on the options available with the king in order to further the interest of the kingdom with respect to both conquest and welfare. It is a product of a well-protected and secure state with a kindled stock of human resource that intensively engages in economic activity incentivised by the robust institutions of the state. As a result, the treasury swells in size further engendering better progress of other organs.
Danda signifies the concrete hard power that the monarch holds and uses to carry out his duty of conquest. It is significant here to distinguish between durga and danda. Whereas durga represents the defensive apparatus of the state, danda is the military force that the king employs while embarking on a conquest. This force is only as good as the morale of the army and so the qualities such as valour, loyalty and sacrifice are rated supreme for any army.
Mitra or ally is the seventh and final constituent of the state. It is noteworthy that Kautilya includes ally within the rubric of seven basic organs of the state despite it being an external factor. This illustrates the relevance Kautilya attached to forging healthy alliances with other states. The rajamandala is described as the arena of all action within which the king decides his actions based on the geographical disposition and convergences and divergences of interests. When the first six elements are in good health then the king will find it easy to maintain a good score in the seventh factor.
A robust and synergised functioning of the first six organs automatically results in forging strong alliances with other states. These seven constituents of the state enshrined under the Saptanga theory together form the reservoir of comprehensive national power. Before adopting any policy measure, the king makes precise calculations of the health of all the seven constituents of his state vis-à-vis that of his adversaries and allies. Depending on his geographical position in the rajamandala and relative power derived out of the Saptanga theory, the king chooses one or more options from the six measures of state policy (Sadgunyas).
The king as the dandadhara performs the vital task of arresting matsya nyaya within the territory of his kingdom; but anarchy reigns supreme in the realm of interstate interactions. By virtue of his power to mobilise all resources of the state, the king must undertake steps to ensure national security. Rajamandala is the inter-state arena of all diplomatic action. Rajamandala literally translates to a series of concentric circles. It comprises exactly twelve types of players depending on their propensity for military adventurism, geographical disposition and relative powers. In the centre is the vijigishu or the central king who embarks on a campaign with an aim to conquest. The direction of movement of the vijigishu dictates the roles of other powers in the rajamandala. It is important to note here that Kautilya considered only the Indian subcontinent described as the Chakravarti Kshetra expanding from the Himavat in the North to the sea in the South and 1,000 yojanas (one yojana is three kilometres) East to West’ as the area of contest. He had no Alexandrian notions of world conquest. Depending upon the direction of movement of vijigishu, the sequential arrangement of the neighbouring kingdoms is – ari (enemy), mitra (ally), arimitra (enemy’s ally), mitramitra, arimitramitra. As the vjigishu makes a move towards ari, the kings at his rear are parshnigraha (heel catcher as in the rear enemy), aakranda (rear ally), parshnigrahasaara (ally of parshnigraha), aakrandasaara (rear ally’s ally). The eleventh state is the madhyama or the middle king whose territory borders both the vijigishu’s and ari’s. The middle king is more powerful than both the ari and vijigishu and can tilt towards any side depending on the situation. It is in the interest of the madhyama to keep the vijigishu and ari from uniting. The last component of the rajamandala is udasina, the outlier kingdom. The udasina is geographically removed from the core of the rajamandala but it has stakes in the interstate developments taking place within the eleven states. It is larger and more powerful than other states of the rajamandala. It enjoys the luxury of being the silent witness of the interactions between other states and acting out at a time and location of its choosing. It has the ability to influence the overall dynamics of inter-state interactions by virtue of its size and power.
The rajamandala acts as the yoni (basis) for the application of the sadgunyas (measures of state policy). Its construct gives out the geographical dispositions, strategic inclinations and natural alignments of the states depending upon the movement of the vijigishu. The famous adage ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’ also flows from the rajamandala. In order to formulate his strategy, a king must take into account the health of various elements (prakritis) of each state within the rajamandala. KA proposes a total of 72 prakritis out of which 12 are Raja Prakritis comprising the 12 kings and 60 are Dravya Prakritis (lesser elements; arrived at by totaling the five elements of each state leaving out the swami and the mitra, 12×5=60). The vijigishu must calculate these 72 prakritis of each state to arrive at the relative powers. This calculation is not just an arithmetic exercise involving a comparison of each organ of every state based on its current condition. It takes into cognisance the future projection of these organs after a profound analysis of investments made in each sphere by the state in question. To arrive at a correct picture, the king must have a profound access to very specific and precise data about each state in the rajamandala. For this, Kautilya advocates the use of a network of spies and other covert means. Moreover, the rajamandala is a dynamic setting which is continuously in flux as each state endeavors to increase its relative power vis-à-vis other states. This further complicates the relationship between states and the vijigishu needs to keep revising his estimate based on every development that takes place within the rajamandala. Furthermore, the dynamism within the rajamandala gives rise to new convergences and divergences between various states resulting in formation and dissolution of bilateral and multilateral groupings.
KA proposes six measures of state policy (sadgunyas) out of which the king chooses his strategy after considering all the factors mentioned above. First is Samdhi – peace, which is the natural choice when the rival is strong and shall remain to be strong for a foreseeable future. Second is Vigraha – hostility or war, which the king must opt for when the rival is vastly inferior in power and own future prospects look strong and healthy. The third option is Asana – remaining quiet, which is the policy of non-interference in foreign embroilment. This is adopted when the king is unsure of the relative power of the adversary. Asana does not amount to inactivity but stands for maintaining a quiet external demeanour while intensely working to improve the internal factors. The fourth is Yana – march; it is the policy of active consolidation and pursuit which may involve coercive policies short of all-out war. Yana must be adopted when own power is on an ascent while the adversary is on a path to decline. The fifth is Samshraya – seeking shelter, which is the preferred policy when the adversary is rising in power while own elements are not in their best shape. Finally, is the policy of Dvaidabhava – dual policy. It is the policy of exercising more than one policy depending upon the situation and circumstances. These six measures of state policy are not placed in any form of hierarchy and can be applied in any order as per context.
The strategic inclinations of various states concluded from the relative placement of states within the rajamandala are only broad generalisations and KA gives out a large number of caveats to these generalisations. Two neighbouring states, despite being natural enemies, may come together to counter a third state which poses a bigger threat. In such a case, their convergence may be a more relevant factor in engendering an external policy than their divergence. Kautilya also gives out a preference matrix in situations that may be resolved by applying any one of two alternate policies. For example, if two adversary states have comparable power and appear to be so in the future, then peace is preferable to war. War has been prescribed only as a last resort as war causes kshay, vyay and pravas (loss, costs, and low morale). Even if war is chosen as the preferred option, the king must undertake operations to weaken the rival and bring him to the brink of defeat by covert operations much before the actual fighting breaks out. The aim must be to uproot the adversary state’s governing structure with minimum loss to the masses. This would help the king in the later consolidation phase after he has defeated his rival king. War must always be motivated by an aim for the expansion of the kingdom and not the vanity of the king. Secondly, Asana must be chosen over Yana when the circumstances justify both. Asana must not be understood as inactivity. It involves heavy volume of activity within the state while maintaining a quiet external demeanor. This option is adopted when own prakritis weigh relatively less vis-à-vis other states of the rajamandala. Thirdly, Dvaidabhave is preferred over Samshraya because it allows the king to retain the initiative and maintain strategic autonomy.
Taking the rajamandala as the basis, the king has to calculate the 72 prakritis and make a choice or a combination of choices from the sadgunyas with an overall aim of improving his relative power in the rajamandala, his ultimate aim being yogakshema. After deciding upon his strategy from the sadgunyas, the king resorts to the upayas – sama, dana, bheda and danda at an operational level. These upayas are not exclusive to Kautilya. When the king moves towards conquest, he must adopt either vigraha or yana as the strategy while employing an intelligent combination of the four upayas to obtain a favorable outcome. On the other hand, if the king settles for consolidation engendered by a recent conquest or sub-optimal health of the body politic, his preferred strategy should be samdhi, asana or samshraya to operationalise which he again resorts to the upayas. Dvaidabhave looms as a possible recourse in both the options. All these considerations and calculations take place under an overarching shadow of geography, relative strengths, strategic inclinations – convergences and divergences and the ultimate triad of gain – Artha, Kama, and Dharma.
Kautilya also gives out three types of tactical factors that may have a direct bearing over the outcomes of the adopted policy- tangible factors, intangible factors and unpredictable factors. Tangible factors include the quantitative assets such as the military might, economic strength, relative national power, time and place of action. Intangible factors include aspects of Mantrashakti and Prabahvashakti. Unpredictable factors include any unforeseen calamity or ailment that might affect the body politic such as natural disasters. The recent pandemic and its role in further undermining the already weakening hegemony of the US is a classic example of an unpredictable factor.
National security concerns in the present context subsume all spheres conceivable in the existence of a nation. Safeguarding of territorial integrity and political sovereignty, economic and political stability, diplomatic dominance, energy security, technological self-reliance, cyber and space, internal unity and social harmony and protection against global negative externalities, all fall under the rubric of national security. Thus, the overall goal of achieving national security involves an incessant quest to acquire more resources (conquest) coupled with an iron will to translate these resources into capabilities (consolidation) that result in effective power projection at a global level. This resonates with the Kautilyan concept of yogakshema. National security in its true sense can only be achieved by conquering the minds of world leaders by developing a formidable umbrella of deterrence in all spheres. Such signaling warrants credible hard power backed by a strong economy overarched by just and humane policies that are zealously enforced by robust institutions.
Taking a page from the Kautilyan concept of saptanga, the current dispensation needs to calibrate the grey areas in the foundational elements of India as a nation state. Despite propagating the need for an absolute monarchy, KA places human resource much above the economy and military. Needless to say, it acquires all the more significance in a democratic republic. Indian society is a mix of different cultures and traditions. With the exception of the British, all those who came as conquerors became settlers and added to this heady mix of cultures and people. This diversity is the essence of the Indian experience. Naturally, it also harbours a plethora of fault lines that hold the potential to unhinge the entire balance. India took a leap of faith by adopting Universal Adult Franchise right from the moment it became independent despite abject poverty, low per capita income, 18 percent literacy, poor life expectancy of 32 years and a fractured society.
Contrary to the skeptical views of experts across the world, India has done fairly well so far. However, this meant that the electoral politics in India has always been about group identity and not good governance. Indians vote to have a member of their own community in power rather than a competent leader. This trend has to gradually change if India hopes to survive the onslaught of the intense Information Warfare that seems to be defining the twenty first century and is aimed at exploiting the fault lines within the society. India can rise only if it can present a united front of diverse people. Inclusivity would be the watch-word for the future leaders of India. A non-inclusive growth almost always fails to translate into a success story of a rising power. Even during the heady days of over eight percent growth in the first decade of the twenty first century before the global financial crisis of 2008, India’s report on inclusivity remained rather patchy. Though there was improvement in factors such as poverty alleviation, infant mortality, greater access to a range of services and goods such as sanitation and water, electricity and mobile phones, the overall improvement in the capability of the citizens to participate in the economic growth through improved well-being and quality employment remained abysmally low.
India’s large youth population holds the potential to lead its march to power. However, it has only served as an impediment to progress and development since independence. A major cause of this can be ascribed to lack of proper training and absorption of youth in the labour force. In fact, the past few years have shown an alarming trend of a shrinking labour force i.e. number of people actually working or willing to work despite growing population. For various cultural and socio-economic reasons, India stands to lose out on a large chunk of its potential due to the missing female work force. As per the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Index, just 25 percent of women formally engage in India’s labour market compared with 82 percent of men. This is one of the lowest labour force participation rates in the world for women, ranking India 145th out of 153 countries. While, on the one hand, unemployment is at an all-time high, India simultaneously suffers from a lack of sufficient competent professionals in various fields. The worrisome trend of the apparent drain of talent to Western economies has been a major factor.
The hierarchical structure of the saptanga alludes (by placing durg over kosa) that there cannot be sustained economic growth without a guarantee of security from external aggression. The aim of military hard power today is to deter war and if deterrence fails, use force to gain political objectives. The present security landscape of high technology powered kinetic and non-kinetic means of warfare warrant the possession of indigenously developed inventory of military platforms backed by a flourishing defence industrial base. These resources must be integrated in a seamless command and control structure that is capable of jointly planned operations, guided by a clearly defined strategic doctrine aimed at achieving the overall political objective. Each element of this ecosystem needs to be transformed systematically to form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Civil-military relations, inter-services friction, cumbersome acquisition process and a weak defence research capability, are some key challenges that need to be addressed promptly.
The Way Ahead
Recent developments unfolding in the global scenario reflect a tectonic shift in the global order morphing from a Euro-American centric order to the Asia Pacific. America’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan and more recently, Russia’s adventures in Ukraine further validate the palpable decline of the unipolar order. The rise of China is viewed as the major game shifter in the coming decades as it challenges the primacy of the US. Yet, the seemingly impending scramble for power and influence will be inherently different from the Cold War contest between the USSR and the US due to the economic intertwining of the major contenders. The mechanics of engagement between the US and China will keep shifting between cooperation and competition depending on their relative powers and current leadership. Such a dynamic and tumultuous order renders the maintenance of strategic autonomy more challenging yet all the more important for India. The sadgunyas elaborate the importance of strategic autonomy over seeking shelter as it provides room for strategic maneuvering and maintenance of initiative.
As China exerts more pressure in its bid to emerge as the regional and subsequently global leader, India becomes the natural choice for countervailing the Chinese dragon by virtue of its proximity to China and its size, population, economic potential and scientific and technological capabilities. This puts India at a crossroads of myriad challenges and opportunities that if managed skillfully, hold the potential of being the harbinger of India’s rise. KA places the policy of maintaining a calm and quiet external demeanour while engaging in intense operations of internal improvement when the adversary is on a march and his future prospects look stronger. In addition to working upon strengthening of the six internal elements as already covered under the section on saptanga, India also needs to forge bilateral and multilateral alliances. India’s overall interests may be unique to it, but most of them converge with a host of other middle and small powers. Alliances founded on convergences with various regional and global powers aimed at securing alternative options for the exercise of strategic autonomy will go a long way in making up for the deficit in hard power. Broader issues such as climate change, terrorism, secured Sea Lanes Of Communication (SLOC) and most recently, the global fight against COVID pandemic, the call for international cooperation at bilateral, regional and global levels depending on contexts. An active policy operationalising the tenets of sama, dana, bheda, and danda aimed at forging alliances based on several such issues would help to take the edge away from any one power.
Taking a page from the concept of Kautilyan rajamandala, India needs to work on its neighbourhood policy. Before it can confidently project itself as the next big power, China has to deal with multiple issues ranging from territorial disputes to internal dissent and lack of a positive worldview. These discrepancies can be exploited by bringing together of the countries in India’s neighbourhood that stand to lose out as a result of rising China. A shared history with cultural and traditional ties cannot be taken for granted to guarantee a natural inclination towards India vis-à-vis China. In fact, recent past has adequately highlighted the shortcomings in India’s policy towards its neighbours despite ‘neighbourhood first’ policy which has led to the powers at the rim of the Indian sub-continent to gravitate towards China. Instead of taking an active role as a leading regional power, actions such as walking out of the RCEP serve to further undermine India’s standing.
China’s unsavoury policies of ‘debt trap’ and ‘warrior wolf diplomacy’ have worked to antagonise various regional powers of South Asia and South East (SE) Asia, but India must project itself capable of rising to the regional hegemony of China in order to command the trust of these nations. The recent selling of the BrahMos missile system to the Philippines and the future prospect of a similar deal with Vietnam are steps in the right direction. Although India faces its own challenges in ironing out the wrinkles with its neighbours, it must aim at exploring new areas of convergence that will help to foster an environment of trust and cooperation. The Indian subcontinent along with the extended region of SE Asia shares a common geology and faces similar challenges due to climate change. An active role in finding sustainable solutions to common ecological challenges would not only foster India’s standing in the rajamandala but also help to solve critical domestic issues caused due to ecological imbalance.
Conclusively, in its obsession with countervailing China, India must not forget the grand strategic goal of yogakshema aimed at the overall transformation of India by a progression of resource acquisition and capacity building. This can only be achieved by launching concerted campaigns against the obstructions in the development of each of the seven elements of state as conceived in KA.
Kajari Kamal (2018): Kautilya’s Arthashastra: Indian Strategic Culture and Grand Strategic Preferences, Journal of Defence Studies, Vol. 12, No. 3, July-September 2018, pp. 27-54.
Wealth here assumes the overarching concept that encompasses all things material (majorly land) that serves as a means of livelihood.
Arthashastra: Book 1, Chapter 19, Sutra 34