In our last post, I had briefly mentioned that the genesis of democratic values and ethos of contemporary India could be traced back to people-centric governance institutions and values of Mauryan era. Of course teachings of Tamil sage Thiruvalluvar around same era also played huge role in building a social culture for a harmonious, pacifist trust based society, where integrity among individuals was emphasised as the biggest virtue. Mauryan polity of ancient era is very often considered as one of the earliest examples where governance principles and processes incorporated principles of collective security as well as welfare of the vulnerable. Even though it was not an elected government, goodwill and support of the masses was one of the most critical foundations on which the entire political system rested. We must remember that the Mauryan polity thrived in an era that was quite close to that of the ancient Greek democracy. The notable distinction was that Greek city states were much smaller in sizes whereas Mauryan empire covered almost entire Indian subcontinent, extending from Afghanistan to Bengal and beyond, barring of course a substantial part of the Southern sub-continent.
When we study available records about Mauryan polity, as offered by Kautilya and Megasthenese as well as other sources, which have been interpreted and analysed by both Indian and Western scholars, it clearly emerges that King did not rule on the basis of divine rights. Kingship might have become hereditary but ‘duties of the King were well defined and he had no discretion to reject advice rendered by the most capable and wise men, who constituted the council of Ministers.’ One of the most well researched works on Mauryan Polity, written by Professor Ramachandra Dikshitar in 1932 for University of Madras, states that the “The views of Council Ministers were not merely an advisory (p 134) but mandatory, the king could lay down his opinion but could not impose and decisions were not taken by majority but by mature decisions implying by consensus.”
Professor Dikshitar identified the following as the principal duties of the political sovereign:
Enforcement of Svadharma, implying members of every profession or sections of society fulfilled their identified professional or otherwise role with integrity;
Administration of Justice;
Protection of citizens from natural Calamities;
Administration of an effective foreign policy to safeguard all round security of the empire.
Promotion of arts and education, health and sanitation, medical aid and relief to the poor, and other charitable acts and deeds including donations and grants to learned men and maintenance of widows, the orphan and the helpless;
Close watch on “Sanyasins”, who were protected and honoured but any impropriety in their conduct was not tolerated.
Professor Dikshitar has also emphasized on progressive taxation followed by the State and special care taken to avoid inconvenience to the people, by instituting safeguards against corruption by officials. At the same time, Sovereign was obligated to spend all its resources wisely and with a degree of austerity. At another level, it indicates a dynamic and somewhat mutually reinforcing equilibrium between the state and society, where both state or sovereign as well as people in general were guided by certain code of conduct to maintain high degree of social harmony and political correctness.
Professor Dikshitar wrote this piece in 1932. Wide range of sources that he has consulted, lends authenticity and integrity to his work. Virtually all eminent historians on the subject, also share such description of governance in Mauryan polity, where royal authority was constrained to pursue welfare of the people as well as security of state and society. Interestingly, even at the time of publication of Professor Dikshitar’s research, neither the idea of modern welfare state (envisaging support for the vulnerable and destitute) nor the idea of national security (enshrining a comprehensive and yet integrated concept of political, military, social, scientific and economic dimensions of governance to optimise strength and security of a state) had gained momentum.
The concept of welfare state gained momentum only after second world war, and many believe that it was in the aftermath of Marxist challenge to capitalist democracies. They argue that western democratic states were compelled to incorporate the principles of welfare and egalitarianism in their governance policies to pre-empt any possible influence of Marxist ideology on the masses. Similarly, the idea of national security as such was first articulated by US Navy Secretary James Forestall during a hearing in the US Senate in August 1945. Forestall had suggested a much ‘wider and comprehensive concept going beyond military strength to include almost everything linked with war-making potential or capacity of state. These included industry, mining, research and manpower and such other activities which also enhanced quality of civilian life’.  The Western discourse on national security also traces origin of this idea only in the aftermath of emergence of modern Westphalian state in 17th Century. It should not be considered an act of audacity when we claim that Mauryan polity seemed to combine both the welfare and national security dimensions of governance way before these ideas germinated in the West.
It would certainly be unfair to scrutinise political structures and social order of Mauryan polity from the prism of 21st Century Scandinavian democracies. Even the techniques and principles of warfare or conduct of foreign policy or collective security of Mauryan polity needs to be studied in its own context rather than comparing it with contemporary era. Subsequently, these systems might have degenerated or subverted or lost their vigour or failed to adapt to changing realities. Nevertheless, these do provide one of the finest example of people-centric governance that combined the highest principles of comprehensive security outlook.
Robustness and vigour of these institutions and their values can be inferred from their ability to provide stability and harmony in an empire that is massive even by contemporary standards. Barring China, most of the advanced civilisations, especially those in the West, during the same time were divided in much smaller city state like entities. Even though some had secured spectacular military victories, they did lack a comprehensive and detailed governance apparatus of a welfare like state. It is unlikely that such a system and values would have emerged suddenly with wisdom of Kautilya and valour of Chandragupta. It is more plausible that the values and processes that Kautilya was able to resurrect and streamline were widely prevalent, or at least known, much before Kautilya himself came on the political scene of the sub-continent. Kautilya may have codified and refined these further. The concept “Dharma” infused a moral obligation both on the ruler and the ruled, enhancing the quality of social or political contract between the two.
If societies lack cohesion and institutions are clumsy, it is easier for smaller network of forces to derail the focus of governance in democracies. In absence of strong regulatory capacity and efficient criminal justice systems, democracy can become an arena for war among competing groups. They may use every possible means, including propaganda, deception and even some degree of violence in pure and simple pursuit of power. Despite an outward facade of democracy, priority shifts from collective interests of entire mass of people to narrow interests of cliques and syndicates. Outwardly, these institutions may still feign commitment to wider popular interest and do a lip service to the same. Governance also seems to be suffering in democracies due to lack of inbuilt incentives, opportunities and support for incumbents, for high quality output with integrity, in different key institutions - like political parties, corporate sector, civil service, judiciary, research institutions, health sector, media etc. Many a times, one finds a gap or a contradiction between institutional goals of these entities and the larger governance objectives.
The idea of democracy is driven by the spirit of channelling collective energies and wisdom of people towards composite well-being of all. As societies are advancing, the idea of composite well-being of the people becomes more complex. Simultaneously, it becomes increasingly difficult to build and manage institutions which can pursue these effectively while adapting and evolving to new realities. Hence, it is not sufficient to have some structures and processes of representation and governance. The underlying spirit of harmony, trust, collaboration and opportunities or incentives for excellence are equally important. Without these, it amounts to having body without soul. We need serious re-focus and re-orientation of institutions of governance in democracies. Mauryan polity does provide an inspiring example in its context. Its structures may not be relevant but its spirit remains worthy of emulation. We need to pose to ourselves: are we ready to move in this direction?