As books go, this one hardly appeared impressive. Wrapped in bare red cloth, stored in an unlocked steel cupboard and reeking of the natural insect-repellent citronella, the long, narrow brown leaves opened like a fan in fragile, individual sheets, held through holes by a white cord stretched between crude covers made from bare pieces of wood.
Yet the dried palm leaves with their neat and tiny handwritten obscure script reflects an invaluable 2 000-year-old treatise on statecraft, economic policy and military strategy that continues to intrigue and provoke. Part of the important collection belonging to the Oriental Research Institute (ORI), set up in 1891 by the then Maharaja of Mysore, now in the south western Indian state of Karnataka, the rare text was donated by a pandit from Tanjore in neighbouring Tamil Nadu.
The gift brought long-lasting fame to the ORI when it was eventually uncovered in a pile of documents over a century ago by the astounded librarian and Sanskrit expert, Dr. Rudrapatna Shamashastry. He took four years to carefully transcribe, edit and publish the leaves, with the English edition finally released to great acclaim in 1915.
Dating back five to six centuries, the book is a preserved copy of the ancient “Arthashastra” or “Arthasastra” the rediscovered classical Indian manual on “the science of politics and economics” but encompassing everything from everyday life be it ethics, laws, trade, diplomacy and government, to war, peace and the duties and obligations of rulers and kings.
The ruthless royal adviser Chanakya or Cāṇakya, believed from the Brahmin intellectual caste, is traditionally accepted as the original author of the main work collected and written down around the fourth century BCE, although scholars vigorously debate how much was added and altered since. Usually identified as the teacher and philosopher nicknamed Kautilya, “the crooked one,” he systematically planned and guided the rise of the powerful Emperor Chandragupta, starting around 320 BCE, arguing “success alone is paramount for it is the foundation of law and pleasure.”
A consummate and cunning kingmaker, Chanakya was among the earliest recorded political players who manipulated their protégés into national positions of power, choosing to work stealthily.
Chanakya supposedly began his career when he was publicly insulted by an ill-tempered ruler of the preceding Nanda Dynasty. Vowing terrible revenge, he selected and groomed the penniless orphan who emerged the Emperor, becoming the young man’s most trusted counsel. Chandragupta soundly defeated the Nandas and founded the extensive Maurya Empire, the Iron Age kingdom based in Magadha, in Bihar, that proved central to the development of the religions, Jainism and Buddhism. The Mauryan sovereign’s equally ambitious grandson Ashoka the Great would go on to rule almost all of the Indian sub-continent, only converting to Buddhism and a more peaceful frame of mind after witnessing the mass deaths and destruction during the bloody conquest of the Kalinga people.
Outlining appointments to the ruler’s administration, he favoured the naming of Ministers, “because tasks are numerous and have to be carried out at the same time and in different places” so these officials would implement “what he cannot directly observe for fear that the proper time and place may pass by.”
Exemplary qualities of an ally should be “consistent; submissive; not prone to duplicity; eminent; and able to mobilise quickly” Chanakya stated. “Government seeks to acquire what has been acquired, to safeguard what has been acquired, to augment what has been safeguarded, and to bestow what has been augmented on safe recipients,” he declared, according to the popular modern translation of “The Arthasastra” by the university academics, Mark McClish and the Indologist, Patrick Olivelle.
About anarchy, he felt that when a ruler fails, “it gives rise to the law of the fish – for in the absence of the dispenser of punishment a weak man is devoured by a stronger man, and protected by him, he prevails.” Prescribing specific rights and duties to each Minister, such as the treasurer, the tax and revenue collector, the dispute adjudicator, and the murder investigator, Chanakya recommended the monarch convene a council that “ponders over the king’s own party and that of his enemy.” He added, “With regard to activities, they should initiate what has been left undone, complete what has been initiated, enhance what has been completed, and bring the commission to a successful conclusion.”
Once he had established Chandragupta on the throne, Chanakaya undertook a secret project to make the Emperor immune to poisoning by adding small amounts of toxins to his food every day. According to the stories, the plan backfired when the Queen accidentally ate some of the food and collapsed while heavily pregnant. Chanakya then reportedly performed a caesarean and delivered the baby, who later became Emperor Bindusara.
Guyana is replete with talk of kingmakers, further insidious political scheming, and future emperors following the selection by the main Opposition party of its’ Presidential candidate, since the 35-member ruling Central Committee voted for the former Minister of Housing, the beleaguered Irfaan Ali 24-11, over his last standing challenger, the former Attorney General, Anil Nandlall. All of this ensued from the December 21, 2018 shock passage of the no-confidence motion against the coalition Government caused by the sudden defection of the backbencher, Charrandass Persaud, still in Canada.
Both Ali and Nandlall had quickly pledged their support and key roles in any upcoming administration for the bespectacled man perceived as the current crafty “kingmaker,” Opposition leader, Bharrat Jagdeo, fatefully barred from serving an unprecedented third term as Executive President of the Republic, under an unanimous amendment to the Constitution that was ruled as valid last June, by the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice. “The CCJ felt that it was clear that the amendment did not emerge from the desire of any political party to manipulate the requirements to run for the office of President. The Constitution was amended, after extensive national consultation and, therefore, represented a sincere attempt to enhance democracy in Guyana,” the regional court found.
Ali is currently at the centre of two continuing controversies, the first relating to his tenure as Housing Minister under the PPP/Civic regime, as he faces 19 charges over the allocation of house lots to Jagdeo and other Cabinet members, and other key figures in the ‘Pradoville 2’ Housing Scheme. The lots were allegedly sold far below market value thereby defrauding the state of millions of dollars. Promising B$100 investments and 50,000 jobs should he be elected President, Ali launched the grand campaign for public support without a date for the country’s next elections announced yet and even as his academic credentials are being questioned.
Jagdeo has now confirmed that he supported Ali as the Party’s candidate. At a public session in Ali’s home-village of Leonora, along the West Coast Demerara, Jagdeo stressed, “In this period, I work to make Irfaan Ali a more successful president, so what’s wrong with that? He is my friend and he is a member of the party, a longstanding and a valuable member of the party. All my skills, every single bit of it will be at his disposal for Guyana and for the future of all of our people and I don’t have any apology to make for that…”
In the immortal words of Chanakya, “there is some self-interest behind every friendship” for “there is no friendship without self-interests. This is a bitter truth.” He reminded us too, that “the life of an uneducated man is as useless as the tail of a dog which neither covers its rear end, nor protects it from the bites of insects,” recommending: “Do not be very upright in your dealings for you would see by going to the forest that straight trees are cut down while crooked ones are left standing.”
ID contemplates the contradictions of Chanakaya. He snarled, “As soon as the fear approaches near, attack and destroy it” but insisted, “The earth is supported by the power of truth; it is the power of truth that makes the sun shine and the winds blow; indeed, all things rest upon truth.”