Remember the palpable hope of the 1990s? Radical economic reforms opened up what seemed like limitless opportunities for the young professional, and this wealth creation had a cascading effect on players in every industry from schools to domestic help, everyone wanting a finger in the pie, if not a big slice. And there seemed to be enough to go around, topped with optimism, pride and hope.
Sadly, the feeling two decades later is one of despair. We saw this emerge in a spontaneous wave during Anna Hazare’s movement, and although that has died a quiet death, it is clear that there is a simmering discontent, or at least a semblance of outrage, and a definite desire for change. Change, which is no longer an option, but a critical need. And to achieve this, who better to look up to than that master of statecraft, Chanakya.
This is what Pavan K. Varma does in his book Chanakya’s New Manifesto, by taking tenets from the Arthashastra and fitting them into the present day context.
However it is not just Chanakya that he seeks out; he also focuses on India’s founding fathers and their governance after 1947. A wonderful perspective of history is presented, along with all the positive legacies we are living with as a result of their visionary policies. But equally important are those situations that were simply not foreseen (such as coalition politics) that our present system is utterly unable to deal with. The reader is taken on a roller-coaster ride with incredible highs and sinking lows. This feeling is best summarised by the author’s observation that, “The number of people rescued from absolute poverty in the six decades following 1947 is more than the entire population of Europe; although it is equally true that more people are still abjectly poor in today’s India than the entire population of Europe.”
Following the brief history lesson, the author identifies five key areas (governance, democracy, corruption, security and the creation of an inclusive society) as candidates for overhaul, and dedicates a chapter to each of them, beginning with a pertinent quote from the Arthashastra. Each is dealt with systematically, citing examples of how things have been going very wrong with our current policies, indicting government after government on their continued non-performance in areas ranging from agriculture to security, from education to foreign policy, culminating in a comprehensive ‘manifesto’ stating the actions required to bring about change.
The amount of research and thought that has gone into this is evident, but it is a pity that at one point the author strays into what is perhaps not his area of expertise. In the chapter on corruption (one that I was most looking forward to and one that was most disappointing) it might have been better to desist from sweeping generalisations about the “Hindu sense of self” — an abstraction that is beyond comprehension — linking it quite unpardonably to Indian citizens’ propensity to be corrupt. This is as distasteful as linking terrorism with Islam, and does nothing to enlighten, and could have been entirely avoided. However, a clear-cut solution with emphasis on the role of a Lokpal redeems this chapter.
In the rest of the book, the author is on surer ground, especially with his unequivocal criticism of India’s historical and present stand on national security, describing it as “sloppy, ad hoc, unplanned, reactive and completely lacking in focus and will.” He goes on to bemoan that “it sometimes appears that China and Pakistan have mastered Chanakyan stratagems to the same degree that we have forgotten them.” Equally incisive is his take on the tragedy of India’s non-inclusive society, where citizens and the government are, by and large, callous and indifferent to the plight of the poorest of us.
The manifesto lists out bold and comprehensive steps to set us on the right path, not limping as we are now, but marching. In the event that a government sees it fit to implement these fixes, one can only hope that they (including the author, who is a politician) rise above myopic populist politics and become visionaries, for, as Chanakya believed, “There is one supreme goal that transcends all others when it comes to matter of state, and that is — national interest.”
(Veena Prasad is a freelance writer)