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29 February 2012, Gateway House

Ashoka or Arthashastra

Ashoka or Arthashastra: which one can better shape India's foreign policy and future? Gateway House sponsored its second Global Minds Essay Contest, which was open to any student in India aged 15-19 years. This essay by Huma Yaseen from Uttarakhand won the first prize

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In the times when ideologies are toeing the most pragmatic lines and statecraft is being reborn, the classic text of Arthashastra is a suitable reference to determine the Indian foreign policy as compared to Ashoka’s dhamma. Ashoka’s dhamma and post-Kalinga spread of peace and Buddhism was a kind of missionary act.

Kautilya’s Arthashastra deals exclusively with the orderly functioning of the society and existential problems of governance. It offers ideal principles for a foreign policy. According to Arthashastra, “The meta-strategic objective for the state and its embodiment, the ruler or government was to achieve the position of the chakravartin – the universal hegemony –within whose large territorial ambit strife was eliminated, peace forcefully imposed and order restored and maintained.” Even Ashoka’s act of exercising his responsibility for the welfare and security of a horde of small and large kingdoms on the periphery of his state materialised after having bloodily pacified them. Thus, Ashoka was also tapping in a concept propounded by Kautilya’s Arthashastra as six-fold policy for a king desirous of expanding his power.

Kautilya had a strong opinion about War and Peace, Human Rights, International Economic Justice and World Order. Hence in this era of Globalisation, references from Arthashastra can best help shape India’s foreign policy. Since, Arthashastra is more than 2000 years old treatise on realpolitik, it can be modified to suit the needs of modern international order and can form the basis of Indian foreign policy.

When the policies are primarily driven by the economic motives, merely politics does not form the basis of foreign policy. Foreign policy is framed on the considerations of strategic competitions as well as political rivalry. The sophistication and the growing needs of the economy coupled with the demands of globalization have brought about a qualitative change in the conduct of international relations. Energy – thermal and nuclear, science and technology, biotechnology, information technology, nanotechnology, environment, space, climate change and sustainable development and the like are now the core diplomatic vocabulary. Market protection is giving way to dismantling of trade barriers. Competition is the mantra, free trade the dharma and multilateralism the altar on which the economic relations are now conducted. Energy – the strategic need for which has spurred unprecedented demand has, today, become the centrepiece of foreign policy.

This is the era of economic and strategic partnerships when military might has apparently taken a backseat. As a rising power, India has strategic partners all over the world. Following principles of  Arthashastra, India now needs to categories the states as equal, superior and inferior to it and devise strategies to deal with them. As an emerging economic power it has to make partners with developed nations which would now invest in India and provide new technologies for scientific research. At the same time it needs to have trade relations with developing nations so as to expand markets for the finished products of the Indian industries.

Regarding the choice of allies, Kautilya  in  Arthashastra has advised – “Of two powerful kings who are on amicable terms with each other, a king shall make alliance with one of them who likes him and whom he likes; this is the best way of making alliance.” The same principle can be followed by India in its international relations. Its alliances would help it to get a permanent seat in United Nations Security Council thus entitling it to have a say on international issues.

Arthashastra states that peace (sandhi), war (vigraha) observance of neutrality (ásana), marching (yána), alliance (samsraya), and making peace with one and waging war with another are the six forms of state-policy. India has followed these principles since independence. It followed NAM and Panchsheel, at the need of the hour had wars with China and Pakistan and settled for a nuclear deal with USA in the twenty-first century. India’s non-aligned record suggests that however close she moved to the United States, she would not surrender her independent foreign policy. Right from independence India had its own separate policy. It created Afro-Asian solidarity movement policy in Bandung, it formed the non-aligned movement to distance itself from two power blocs and it is part of BRICS, ASEAN and G-20. These policies are perfectly in sync with prescription of the Arthashastra. These policies have been instrumental in India’s economic growth and have kept India unaffected from the economic slump that has brought slowdown in major world economies. India has mainly been able to keep itself aloof from impacts of global recession due to the economic policies it has adopted after announcement of market liberalization in 1991. Now it has set its eyes on the new destinations in the world for raw-materials and resources and is entering into strategic partnerships. The Arthashastra suggests similar role for a superior state.

Huma Yaseen is a student of Ashoka Hall Residential Girls School in Almora, Uttaranchal.

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