• Ashwin Mahesh

A new arthashastra

We need a new arthashastra.

The conventional view of this treatise is that it a manifesto for kingship. But equally it is a manifesto for economic development - after all, artha is material, not regal. In the past, however, the two worlds overlapped quite a bit, so it is not surprising that wealth creation should be closely linked with the nuances and sophistry of governance.

We are at an interesting moment in Indian history, when - once again - there is confluence between the material and administrative worlds. India sees itself as potentially emerging on to a world stage, and a very large part of this self-image stems from the sense that we could wield increasing economic clout in the 21st century. We are at a new arthashastra moment.

There are those who see this moment as already upon us. National self-interest is written all over the central government's stance, and this is almost entirely propelled by a fascination with the merchant classes - who are a little different today from the Amar Chitra Katha versions, but find it equally useful to hitch their artha wagon to the rajya horses.

But there are important differences. For one, the king is dead, and a much larger section of the population now has a say in the affairs of the state. That means we must come up with an imagination of our importance that is rooted in this new reality. In fact, without this, we may land up in a lot of trouble, with aspirations for global eminence constantly undermined by social and economic tensions at home.

The simplest step we can take towards this new arthashastra moment is to raise the standards of governance, but the measure of this cannot be taken by the king (sarkar) himself. Instead, we need a much more widely acknowledged sense that the country is changing for the better, and that the rules of engagement among the people are fair, and objective. If the quest for artha leaves the rajya behind, inevitably these worlds will collide.

There are those who would argue that the very notion of national self-interest is dangerous, and that it will surely lead to conflict with those we see as 'others'. Haven't the Americans, the Japanese, the Chinese, the British and so many others already learned this lesson? Could India land up repeating their errors?

Possibly. At the same time, there is no use pretending that other nations aren't seeking their own arthashastras, by whatever name they call them. What we need is a way of finding a better place for ourselves in the family of nations that accepts that even among nations, there is a family. And I would wager that the only places that hold any hope of doing so are nations with a high degree of diversity. The search for global pluralism amidst national self-interest is better carried out in heterogeneous societies. Whether it can be found there, is up to us.

The new arthashastra, then, has to be liberal, above all. The narrower definitions of self-interest that more homogeneous societies created are fundamentally antithetical to our internal reality. And if we mimic that, we will surely lose the great games of geopolitics. On the other hand, by positing a more inclusive and accepting view of the world, we will gain much more, both within and without.

Vasudhaiva kutumbakam - updated for the 21st century - may just be the national self-interest too.


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