Beyond Capital

Polemics, Critique and Analysis

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Chanakya: Corruption is systemic

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Kautilya in his Arthashastra discusses the nature of diverse political systems in terms of their inherent potential. For instance, he considered sanghas, i.e., republics to be inferior to a kingdom because they were less capable of motivating and sustaining political and economic expansion. On the other hand, kingdoms could not be as internally and socially cohesive as republics. They were internally unstable and needed a powerful, elaborate and permanent state machinery to sustain themselves.

Similarly, Kautilya finds corruption to be systemic – it is always potentially there in a politico-economic system based on social differentiation and an hierarchised officialdom. To curb it the system continues to add ever new informal and formal bureaucratic offices and officers. Kautilya in chapter 10 of the second Adhikarana of his text raises this systemic dilemma:

यथा ह्यनास्वादयितुं न शक्यं
जिह्वातलस्थं मधु वा विषं वा।
अर्थस्तथा ह्यर्थचरेण राज्ञः
स्वल्पोऽप्यनास्वादयितुं न शक्यः॥
मत्स्या यथान्तस्सलिले चरन्तो
ज्ञातुं न शक्याः सलिलं पिबन्तः।
युक्तास्तथा कार्यविधौ नियुक्ता
ज्ञातुं न शक्या धनमाददानाः॥
अपि शक्या गतिर्ज्ञातुं पततां खे पतत्रिणाम्।
नतु प्रच्छन्नभावानां युक्तानां चरतां गतिः॥

It is not possible not to taste honey or poison placed on the tongue; just so, it is not possible for one dealing with the money of the king not to taste the money, if only a little. We cannot know when a fish swimming in water is drinking water; just so, we cannot know when officers appointed for carrying out works are appropriating money. It is possible to know the path of birds flying in the sky, but not the ways of officers moving with their intentions concealed.
(Translation from Thomas R Trautmann (2012), Arthashastra: The Science of Wealth, Penguin)

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Written by Pratyush Chandra

August 14, 2015 at 3:21 am

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