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Kautilya was no Machiavelli, he’s the most pre-eminent economist in history

In ‘Kautilyanomics’, Sriram Balasubramanian writes that even though the name Kautilya is often used in politics today, no one knows much about the man.

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Much of the literature on Kautilya focuses on his views related to foreign policy and state administration. Many researchers (Saran 2018) have also looked at the geo-political dimensions of Kautilya’s views. These also cover a wide range of issues in state administration among others. Kautilya’s views have also been used as business and self-help ideas (Pillai 2019) that have gained popularity among the masses. Furthermore, there have been also many fictional interpretations (Sanghi 2012) of Kautilya that have captured the imagination of many readers.


Does the Arthashastra Cover All that Is Available Today in Economic Policymaking?

Even the most ardent admirer of Kautilya would agree that the Arthashastra doesn’t constitute all of today’s policymaking ideas and theories found in economic textbooks. However, it does provide a comprehensive set of ideas that serve as foundations for many macro-economic concepts and remain relevant in contemporary times. These ideas are often attributed to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations in contemporary economic discourse, but some of us feel otherwise. Excellent books, like B.S. Sihag’s Kautilya: The True Founder of Modern Economics, focus on the theoretical basis for Kautilya to be the pre-eminent thinker of economic ideas much before the likes of Adam Smith.

Was Kautilya the Originator of These Ideas in the Arthashastra or Did He Compile Them from Pre-eminent Works before His Time?

Kautilya himself admits that some of his ideas were inspired by historical works such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata among others. In a paper with Deodhar (2020), I have articulated how our purusharthas, Vedas and Puranic texts have many tenets of economic thinking before Kautilya. While his ideas are a conglomeration of erstwhile texts, Kautilya also provides a personalised touch to the Arthashastra, with his ideas and perspectives. So yes, Kautilya wasn’t the sole originator of these ideas but he was the closest to bring them together in an appropriate form (though it is still far from a modern framework) during his time.

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Was He More of a Strategic Geopolitical Thinker or a Political Economist?

This question forms the core of this book. Much of the discourse has been on Kautilya’s views on geopolitics but there seems to be an inherent political economist driving it. Unlike his contemporaries, Kautilya seems to have kept economics as a foundation for the geopolitical progress of his kingdom. Even the title of the Arthashastra has artha (wealth) as its central theme, not something like defence (raksha) or state (rajya). In that sense, while he is perceived as a strategic geopolitical thinker, in reality he was a political economist who viewed economics as a means to achieve prosperity and geopolitical expansion.

What Is His Legacy Compared to Other Historical Political Thinkers?

His legacy is often viewed through the lens of contemporary Western thinkers. Much of the literature suggests that there was a Machiavellian streak to him and that his geopolitical strategies (which includes spying and other questionable practices) take centre stage. There are three distinct reasons why I disagree with this comparison. First, the intentions of both authors are very different. As mentioned by Ray in his 1999 book, Tradition and Innovation in Indian Political Thought, Machiavelli’s primary purpose was to maintain the rule of the king. Kautilya, on the other hand, has explicitly mentioned many a time that the main purpose of the text is the ‘yogakshema’ and ‘rakshana’ of the subjects, that is, the welfare, protection, and administration of the people. Rarely does one find Kautilya glorifying the king, his personality, or his rule in isolation—even in instances where he talks about political power, the main purpose is to benefit the people. This is in direct contrast to the Machiavellian text, The Prince, given that the Arthashastra is written through a different lens. Second, the comparison with Machiavelli falls short when viewed through an economic lens. Many of the comparisons should be along the lines of ancient economic thinkers such as Adam Smith and Jules Dupuit.

Third, the narrative on Kautilya is not easily comparable with other individuals in different eras primarily because of the diversity and complexity of ruling such a vast area of land. Moreover, the socio-cultural dynamics of Kautilya’s time are very different to that of the Western world. In that context, comparisons with other historical political thinkers are often an opportunistic but futile exercise. Furthermore, India’s economic survey conducted in 2020 has an interesting box item that reinforces this misaligned comparison with Machiavelli and also compares his thinking with Aristotle and Adam Smith.

This excerpt from Sriram Balasubramaniam’s ‘Kautilyanomics for Modern Times’ has been published with permission from Bloomsbury India.

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