Kautilya ‘s Conception of Good Governance


In the year 2002, the World Bank, for the first time, in its report “Governance and Development, profusely emphasized on the need and importance of “Good Governance”, defining it as the “the manner in which power is exercised in the management of a country’s economic and social resources for development”. However, the idea of good governance is not an agenda of the 21st Century. It has been existed in India since the glorious days of the Mauryan Empire. Kautilya, author of the acclaimed historical work Arthashashtra and Prime Minister in King Chandragupta Maurya’s court, harped on a practically tested and theoretically developed conception of Good Governance at a time when the human race was still trying to discover its roots.

Kautilya’s Arthashashtra is a manual which discusses domestic and international politics. It focuses on administrative laws, political problems, and establishment of law and order, which were penned down keeping in mind the societal conditions of the Mauryan Dynasty. It is believed that Kautilya wanted his work to be based on observations and empirical evidence. He took a tour of the kingdom, personally observing inhabitants of the empire and their surroundings, before writing his views on an ideal administrative system.

In Arthashashtra, Kautilya gives an account of the “Kautilyan State”,which is the harbinger of freedom, prosperty, happiness, and full fledged development of the human personality. Kautilya believed in the idea of common good as opposed to fulfillment of individual demands; The King was expected to give up his personal interests in order to fulfill the need and interests of his subjects. Kautilya mentions in his work that “In the happiness of his subjects lies his happiness, in their welfare, his welfare. What pleases him he shall not consider as good, but whatever pleases his subjects he shall consider as good”. Thus,the king was to behave as the servant of his subjects, catering to their welfare – “Sarva bhuta hite”.

In the Kautilyan State, good governance could be ensured by upholding the true essence of sovereignty. A good king was one who promoted cooperation among his fellow ministers and took decisions unanimously based on deliberations. The King was expected to exercise his charisma and bring about consensus in decision making and its implementation. Furthermore, the Sovereign was not the caretaker of solely the political arena but also of the social domain. For this purpose, the King had to reach out and use the instruments of ‘Danda’ and ‘Dandaniti’. Danda refers to the coercive power of the king, unrestrained by law, and used to exercise authority and inflict punishment upon an offender. Kautilya was cautious regarding the manner in which Danda could be exercised. A king who imposed severe punishments could exasperate his subjects, whereas one who was mild and lenient was bound to be defeated. Danda had to be imposed only after due consideration of the gravity of the offence. If a king was found to have misused his authority, he had to offer to God Varuna a fine equal to 30 times the unjust judgement in order to cleanse his sould of the sin of unjust imposition of punishment.

Kautilya expatiates on a strong political centre. The king, for the benefit of his kingdom, had to be righteous and just, otherwise, his subjects would become impoverished. Impoverishment would lead to greed. Greed would make them join the enemy camp and betray their own master(s).
Kautilya elaborates on the importance of training and selection in public administration. The ‘Amatyas’ or Ministers had to go through a grueling examination process before being recruited. Applicants had to qualify four tests: Wealth, Virtue, Fear, and Pleasure. Those who qualified the wealth test were recruited in the revenue department. Those who passed the Virtue test were recruited in the judicial administration. Qualification of the pleasure test enabled them to receive the post of guarding the royal household. Finally, qualifying the Fear test enabled a person to be recruited as the King’s security personnel or as an officer in the royal army. Futhermore, recruited personnel who failed to fulfill their duties were immediately expelled. This extensive recruitment process facilitated the establishment of a welfare state and a corruption-free administration system in the Mauryan Dyanasty.

It was the duty of the king to chasten the conduct of the people and be the promulgator of the right law and order. The King had to be morally upright and strong in order to mould the minds of his subjects. A reckless king was always disrespected by his subjects and his authority brought the risk of disintegration of the kingdom. Kautilya, in order to avoid such a situation, wanted the king to be a role model for his subjects, one who was dedicated to both the community as well as the kingdom.

For Kautilya, Good Governance was not only a feature embedded within the kingdom, but also depended on actions outside the walls of its fort. He put forward an elaborate system of foreign policy, following which the king could expand his kingdom and establish supremacy over neighboring regions. He maintained flexibility in the political and military actions recommended for the king. He advised a weak king, perhaps one who did not possess the necessary resources to win a war, to always stay at peace, and a strong, domineering king to wage wars at the right time. He put forth a practical and systematic foreign policy for the king to emulate in order to ensure stability of his kingdom.

Kautilya can be rightfully called a political-realist. He was witty but also farsighted. Perhaps it was due to his intellect and wit that the Mauryan Dyanasty was able to become one of the strongest kingdoms observed in Indian history. Kautilya’s policies and principles remain relevant in the contemporary world and continue to serve as a guide for establishing a just and stable societal order.

– Contributed by Rajeshwari

Picture: Representational Image of Kautilya from a Television Show

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