Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Mar 02, 2023
Statecraft and International Relations: Contemporary Lessons from Ancient India This article is a chapter in the journal — Raisina Files 2023.
The Discipline of International Relations (IR) has been broadly Eurocentric since its inception about a century ago. Its primary engagement with great-power rivalry, and universalisation of realist ideas of power, order, security, and national interests—primarily built on Western Christian foundations of state and statecraft—have marginalised the significance of knowledge production in non-Western societies. Yet, contemporary international politics driven by globalisation, rebalancing, and multipolarity has amplified the salience of other geographies, in turn underlining the need of a truly ‘global’ IR. The rise of China and India in particular, has occasioned a study of their strategic cultures, anchored in their ancient past, to reveal cultural explanations of state behaviour. These homegrown philosophies, while sharing certain universal, realist ideas, exhibit unique characteristics. Ancient Indian thinker, Kautilya’s theory of rajamandala (concentric, geopolitical conception of the interstate realm), saptanga (seven organs) theory of power, and matsya-nyaya (law of the fish) predate and broadly allude to Machiavelli’s ‘Prince’ (1513), Hobbes’ ‘state of nature’ (1651), Hans J. Morgenthau’s ‘national power’ (1948), or Kenneth Waltz’s ‘anarchy’ (1959), albeit with a culturally embedded nuance. The need to spell out both the coalescences and the divides has become more relevant at a time when India is intensely engaging with the world. It is at the heart of both, addressing the world’s stark challenges, and harnessing the promise of opportunities for global cooperation; and it has significant capacity and will to do so. Regionally, India is faced with the most threatening of security environments in recent times, with an aggressive China and a turbulent neighbourhood, causing crucial overlaps in global concerns and its own in the region. Despite the convergences, India offers a unique set of measures—seemingly contradictory and often unaligned with the stance of its partners—to manage the challenges. Why has it been difficult to predict contemporary India’s characteristic non-alignment, bargaining behaviour, strategic restraint, and its ready acceptance of ‘grey’ in its relationships? How do its civilisational moorings set it apart from the political culture of the geographies to which Thucydides, Machiavelli, Clausewitz, and Morgenthau belonged? This article unravels the prism through which India sees the world. It investigates the foundational principles of ancient Indian strategic thinking, and what it augurs for a world ridden with both opportunities and challenges, through an examination of Kautilya’s Arthashastra, an ancient classic on statecraft widely seen as the foundational text of Indic political thought. 

Holistic Statecraft 

Statecraft in ancient India subsumes international relations. The primary end goal and the ‘conceptual hook’ in Kautilya’s Arthashastra is yogakshema, where ‘yoga’ means action or acquisition of things, and ‘kshema’ is consolidation or secure possession. Together this umbrella concept ensures raksha (security) and palana (well-being) of the people. This dual task is performed through a political economic approach which meaningfully interweaves political science (dandaniti) and economics (vartta); the domestic realm (tantra) and the interstate (avapa). The material well-being of the people upholds political legitimacy and sustains social cohesion, resulting in gainful economic production which, in turn, strengthens the rod (danda) wielded by the king in the international realm, and advances security of the kingdom. Kautilya invalidates the inside/outside frame of a modern Westphalian state system by the dictum – “the welfare of a state depends on an active foreign policy.”<1> The two interlinked domains pivot around the “seven constituent elements of the state”, representing the seven organs (saptanga) of the body politic: (i) king (swami); (ii) council of ministers (amatya); (iii) countryside (janapada); (iv) fort (durga); (v) treasury (kosha); (vi) army (danda); and (vii) ally (mitra). These follow a hierarchy and together make a state’s comprehensive national power. Notably, and flowing from the order of the constituent elements, state’s power is determined more by the prudence of political leadership and the productivity and happiness of the people (janapada), rather than military might. The ruler is tasked to remain energetically active and engage in enterprises that bring material well-being (artha), which is the root of spiritual fulfilment (dharma) and sensual pleasures (kama). In a globalised and interdependent contemporary state system, a state’s prosperity and security is innately intertwined with that of the region and the world. India is, plausibly, committed towards yogakshema in its vision of the Indo-Pacific as “free, open and inclusive,” and in endeavouring to achieve the “common pursuit of progress and prosperity” of all stakeholders in the region and beyond.<2> With the world’s one-third flow of trade and energy flowing through the region, India’s national development is critically tethered to secure Sea Lines of Communication for both economic growth and trade, and energy security. Approximately 95 percent of the country’s trade by volume, and 68 percent by value, is moved through the seas and oceans.<3> India’s cumulative “sea dependence” for oil is estimated at 93 percent.<4> Additionally, an externally secure environment is most conducive to augment domestic capacities. In this context, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the Quad, serves as a productive mechanism to enhance security and prosperity. The jettisoning of the rigid friend-foe pattern characteristic of Kautilya’s continental rajamandala for a more collaborative framework in an age of connectivity and shared prosperity, underlines the primacy of domestic drivers of India’s foreign policy. India’s oil imports from Russia amid the Ukraine conflict, for instance, is viewed by the government as a “sensible policy to go where we get the best deal in the interests of the Indian people.”<5>

Realpolitik and Moralpolitik

India’s ‘internationalist nationalist’ conduct arguably is testimony to the ancient ‘Realist’ roots of state survival along with the ‘extra-Political Realist’ goals of the abstract universal ideals of lokasamgraha (social wealth).<6> Survival and power in a zero-sum world is balanced by an organic approach of preservation of humanity seen through a variable sum format. The worldview, perhaps, stems from a meta-theoretical understanding of ancient Indian cosmological tradition of dharma which is embedded in the concept of ‘relational existence.’<7> This dilutes the boundaries of ‘self’ and ‘other’ and upholds the many-sidedness of life and its diversity. In addition, the depiction of Bharatvarsa as one of the varsas of Jambudvipa (described as a four-petalled lotus) in Puranic cosmography tells an Indian story of harmonious international co-existence, quite unlike the ‘middle kingdom complex’ of ancient China. In this context, India’s presidency of the G20 places it uniquely to achieve the theme of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam—One Earth, One Family, One Future. The contrasting yet intertwined strains of realpolitik and moralpolitik have characterised India’s foreign policy since independence. The conceptualisation of non-alignment crystallised the belief of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam—the world as one people in the post-Second World War context<8> on one end, and on the other, catered to realist considerations of capability building and national security. In Jawaharlal Nehru’s words, “Every nation places its own interests first in developing foreign policy. Fortunately, India’s interests coincide with peaceful foreign policy and cooperation with all progressive nations.”<9> As a revisionist text, Kautilya advocated political unification of the Indian subcontinent which was a sacred geo-cultural space defended by natural barriers. However, he did not harbour any imperialist tendencies beyond this chakravartinkshetra (region of the sovereign)a good illustration of realpolitik and moralpolitik.

Conception of ‘Power’ 

Kautilya’s conception of power too, connects the inside with the outside and coalesces rationality and normativity; power is relative and only a means rather than an end. The saptanga theory of Kautilyan statecraft lists the constituent elements which together comprise a state’s national power. There are four important deductions that can be drawn from the components and their order. One, the unique amalgamation of material (economic and military might) and non-material factors (political performance of the leadership, loyalty and efficiency of the ministers, productivity of the citizens, morale of the armed forces), provide an insight into a state’s capability and will. Two, with swami (ruler) and amatya (council of ministers) as the top two, Kautilya lays a premium on political leadership and decision-making at the highest level; mantrashakti (power of counsel) scores over prabhavshakti (power of the treasury and army) and utsahshakti (power of valour). Third, the inclusion of mitra (external ally) is indeed novel, and its place in the hierarchy suggests that external help may be important but should be resorted to when internal balancing through the first six fail to achieve the desired results. Fourth, there is a domino effect among the state factors. The swami on top is supreme and selects the amatya who carry out the undertakings in the janapada. Success of undertakings lead to material prosperity which strengthens the political legitimacy of the state, enhances defensiveness, and contributes to a copious treasury, which in turn helps keep the army well-trained, and enhances its deterrent value which adds to the state’s bargaining power in interstate conduct. This is particularly important in the context of a global expansion of authoritarian rule. However, a state’s power is dynamic and relative to other states in the rajamandala. Relative strength, in conjunction with disposition (bhavin) of the state helps preselect, if not predetermine foreign policy action and dilutes the geographical determinism associated with the rajamandala. The sadgunyas (six measures of foreign policy) include policies of accommodation or peace pact (samdhi), seeking shelter (samshraya) and dual policy (dvaidhibhava) generally prescribed for the weaker; hostility (vigraha) and marching (yana) for the stronger; and neutrality (asana) for equals. To be sure, there are many exceptions to the rule based on nature and extent of state calamities (vyasanas) and its impact in the short and long run, justness of the ruler, and mutuality of interests. With a generalised desire for mutual peace, two equal powers too, could adopt accommodation like India and China did through the Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement of 1993. But samdhi also underpins a competitive state structure and is a transient phase to augment capacities and switch policies. China, after a long period of consolidation, leveraged strategic advantage vis-à-vis India and switched from samdhi to samdhayayana (marching after entering a pact) through its Ladakh incursion in the summer of 2020.<10> The Arthashastra puts forth a layered understanding of the interstate realm and the most optimal means of addressing external threat is nuanced yet flexible based on a continuous cost-benefit analysis. The criticality of arriving at correct estimates, therefore, makes knowledge the bedrock of statecraft. The categorisation of friends and enemies emanating from geographical, material, dispositional and situational considerations sharpens strategic assessments and makes policy measures effective.<11> The distinction it draws between an ‘innate’ enemy (in front, devoid of exemplary qualities and constantly doing harm) and a ‘contingent’ enemy (one who is hostile or acts with hostility, at least for the time being) is useful, for instance, in identifying the characteristic difference between how India potentially looks at China and Pakistan.<12> The upaya cluster which pivots on the four methods of politics—conciliation, gift-giving, dissension, and use of force—provides a tool box of options to be used in either singular, alternating, or combined manner.<13> Most importantly, Kautilya understood power as possession of strength which was used as a means (rather than an end) to achieve success defined in terms of “happiness of the people.” 

Strategic Autonomy

Arguably, the single most enduring factor of post-independence India’s foreign policy framework, and perhaps the most puzzling for the West, that can credibly be traced back to Kautilyan statecraft is that of independence of judgment and the concomitant idea of self-reliance. Prime ministers as far apart as Jawaharlal Nehru and Narendra Modi find common ground in a self-reliant India.<14> Kautilyan statecraft (through its saptanga theory) categorically identifies the ally (mitra) as the last and only external element. While internal balancing through the first six domestic elements was preferred, states could use external aid in the form of strategic partnerships (samavaya) to increase one’s own power; through dual policy (dvaidhibhava) by allying with one to fight the other; and by seeking shelter (samshraya) in an imminent threat from a stronger power. Between the last two, preference is given to dual policy because of one’s own political interest being served rather than risking decisional autonomy in case of seeking shelter. Importantly, the deliberation on strategic partnerships in the text is abundantly relevant in an age which has witnessed its proliferation, owing to a greater incentive to cooperate “when balance of power meets globalization.”<15> These ancient arrangements offered a wide array of possibilities to states of various relative strengths to navigate an international environment ridden with both incentives for collaboration and competition. While a pact between stronger and weaker states consistently resulted in the former’s domination over the latter, Kautilya advised considering both immediate gain and potential future gain. The clear principles of entering partnerships are strength, reliability, and convergence of interest. Qualities of a good ally include constancy, being under control, quickly mobilising, hereditary, strength, and reliability. Among these, one under control though inconstant was preferable; constant though giving small help was preferable; and small mobilising quickly was preferable to big mobilising slowly. Kautilya advises forming partnerships with two equals rather than one stronger, and two weaker rather than one equal, to accomplish tasks without risking control. This is arguably the strategic-cultural roots of India’s plurilateral approach at the world stage, through its participation in BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization), and the Quad. The nuanced understanding of forming partnerships and entering alliances is reverberated in the study of the Mahabharata and Ramayana too. There is a culturally conditioned opposition to bandwagoning and proclivity towards balancing when faced with a third power. Rama in his fight against Ravana sought the friendship of ousted and weak Sugriva instead of bandwagoning with the mighty Vali. Further, Duryodhana’s choice of the presumably weak Karna who had fallen out with Arjuna recounts the importance of the loyalty and resoluteness of a weak and aggrieved ally. “By assisting the rival of a rival, Duryodhana was effectively assisting a friend” echoes the Kautilyan dictum “trouble produces firmness in friendship.”<16> In several ways, India’s relations with the United States and its slow but steady upward trajectory since the turn of the century has been largely circumscribed by these inclinations. From an uncertain incipient stage of the bilateral relations in the 1990s to the increasingly pivotal roles the two countries have come to play for each other to attain their national interests, highlight the salience of factors like convergence of interest, overlapping perceptions of the external threat, and relative power. On India’s part, this is equally matched by the deep scepticism about partnering, and strong resistance to aligning with a stronger power, and therefore tendencies to diversify, display mixed strategy of accommodation and resistance, alongside internal capacity building to mitigate risks. The US, despite “its peculiar and particular synonymity between partnership and alliance” is slowly coming to terms with India’s “own way”<17> of upholding the rules-based international order, and the nuanced understanding of ‘partnership’ shaped by the idea to “align without being aligned.”<18> 


The world is between orders, and the increased competition and mistrust, shrinking global assurances, improved participation by previously less active players amid fractured multilateralism, ought to be addressed with nuance and vision. When all the major actors are changing course belying their long-held foreign policy fundamentals, India is securely tethered to its unchanging national character, broadly shaped by its historical legacy, through a matrix of three factors—perception, principle, and pragmatism—alluding to independence of judgment and pursuit of self-reliance, mutuality of respect, and no desire to impose our model on others, respectively.<19> Its civilisational identity places it in a unique position to stimulate cooperation, moderate competition, emphasise inclusivity, shun bloc approaches, and herald a democratic and rules-based order. This is not solely because India seeks a responsible international role, but because it is simultaneously aligned with its core national interests and multicentre worldview.


<1> P. V. Narasimha Rao, Selected Speeches, Volume III, 1993–1994, 399. <2> Narendra Modi, “Keynote Address” (speech, Singapore, June 1, 2018) Shangri-La Dialogue. <3> Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways, Annual Report 2020-21, Government of India, 6. <4> Indian Navy, Indian Maritime Security Strategy, January 2016. <5> Outlook Web Desk, “Russia is India’s Top Oil Supplier for Second Month in a Row, EAM Jaishankar Says ‘Sensible Policy to Buy Oil at Best Deal’,Outlook India, December 15, 2022. <6> Deepshikha Shahi, Kautilya and Non-Western IR Theory (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). <7> Navnita Chadha Behera, “Globalization, Deglobalization and Knowledge Production,” International Affairs 97, no. 5 (2021). <8> Narasimha Rao, “A Moral Authority,” in A Role of Persuasion: Thoughts on a Nation, a People and the World to Which They Belong (New Delhi: Ministry of Human Resource Development, Department of Education, 1986), 47. <9> Shyam Saran, How India Sees the World: Kautilya to the 21st Century (New Delhi: Juggernaut, 2017). <10> For India–China relations post Ladakh, read Kajari Kamal and Lt. Gen. Prakash Menon, “Why China is the Kautilya of International Politics,The Print, March 9, 2021. <11> Enemies are categorised as: a) neighbour with excellences of a foe is an enemy, b) one in calamity is vulnerable, and c) one without support is fit to be exterminated. Similarly, a) one with territory separated by another is a natural ally, b) one related through mother/father is ally by birth, and c) one who has sought shelter for wealth or life is an ally made. <12> For a detailed deliberation on this, see Kajari Kamal and Gokul Sahni, “The Relevance of Ancient Indian Strategy in Contemporary Geopolitics,” ORF Issue Brief No. 470, July 2021, Observer Research Foundation. <13> For a full exposition of use of upayas as a tool set in hybrid scenarios, see Brigadier Nick Sawyer, “Can a Toolset Based on Kautilya’s Arthashastra Offer an Alternative Methodology to Western Systems for Strategy in Complex Hybrid Scenarios” (Thesis, National Defence College, New Delhi, 2021). <14> Kajari Kamal, “A Self-reliant India is Where Modi and Nehru Find Common Ground,Moneycontrol, May 20, 2020. <15> T. V. Paul, “When Balance of Power Meets Globalization: China, India and the Small States of South Asia,” Politics, June 6, 2018. <16> Aruna and Amrita Narlikar, Bargaining with a Rising India: Lessons from the Mahabharata (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). <17> Derek Grossman, “India’s Maddening Russia Policy Isn’t as Bad as Washington Thinks,” Foreign Policy, December 9, 2022. <18> Alyssa Ayres, Our Time Has Come; How India Is Making Its Place in the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018). <19> Rao, “A Moral Authority,” 48.
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Kajari Kamal

Kajari Kamal

Dr. Kajari Kamal teaches Kautilya'sArthashastraand is an Adjunct Faculty Fellow at Takshashila Institution Bangalore.

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