Monday, 8 November 2010

Vetting the King's Cabinet: Ancient Techniques for a Modern Necessity

First of all, apologies for the long silence since my last post. Unfortunately bureaucratic matters have taken up a lot of the past couple of months. However, onwards...

Book 1, Chapter 9:

Quite contrary to the modern practise of vetting cabinet appointments and advisors before their appointment, this chapter suggests secret ways of testing the loyalty of key appointments after they have taken up their posts. However, unlike the current practice, the vetting is meant to not check up on potential, background or indeed character traits but rather ensure loyalty and appropriate behaviour once the advisors have taken up their positions. For this, Chanakya suggests three key ways of testing loyalties and behaviour of cabinet members. Moreover, he provides specific instructions for each of these.

Before describing each of the tests, it is necessary to note that the motivations and ideas for these are guided once again by the crucial principle of the "purusharthas."

The first of these is under a very curious definition of "the virtuous solution" or the "test of virtue" or "Dharma" Chanakya suggests that the king reach a secret agreement with the royal priest and find a false pretext for dismissing him/her from the post, thus freeing the priest to appear as the injured party and carry out a secret task.

In turn, the priest then approaches any suspicious advisor, or indeed all advisors in turn, to declare the king as lacking in virtue and incapable of governance. The priest also suggests that the king ought to be replaced by a better person, determined by all the advisors. The priest must also misinform the advisors that he has spoken to the rest of the cabinet who are in agreement with such a seditous plan.

Here it is crucial to note that kingship was not necessarily determined solely by lineage in classical India. A system of limited democracy seems to have prevailed amongst the elite members of the court. In other parts of the region, a rudimentary form of democracy allowed the people to choose and/or dethrone the ruler. This early system survived at least in some of the Rajputana till the medieval era, with documents from the Sisodia court at Chittorgarh suggesting that the nobles played a crucial part in the ascension of a king.

Chanakya continues with his "test of virtue" by explaining that once a traitor is identified, mostly by his/her gullibility and agreement to the plan proposed by the royal priest, the king should soon after ensnare that advisor in some scandal and relieve him of his post.

Here it is crucial to note that, in the whole process, the advisor is never confronted openly, nor is there any suggestion of a public trial. Instead, the advisor is simply dispatched, gently and on other pretexts. This route does allow the king a lot of discretion in not only removing an advisor from the cabinet but also re-instating them to an equal or higher post should the circumstances change.

The second test is the "test of greed" (or Artha). For this test, the king uses his military chief for a similar purpose, first dismissing him and then allowing him to incite other cabinet members to rebellion. The difference here is the motivation: unlike the priest who uses persuasion and accusations of a lack of virtue against the king, the military chief is granted state funds to lure any treacherous advisors. The military chief uses the spy services to contact the cabinet members, offering them lucre in exchange for their support. The traitors are again dismissed from their posts on false charges.

The third test is the "test of lust" (or Kama). For this test, the king makes use of a female ascestic who is closely linked with the royal family and the court. Indeed, in context of Chanakya's civil code which suggests an ease of divorces, prevalence of remarriages, as well as no particular disfavour attached to widowhood, this may suggest a possible area where middle-aged or older single women - widowed or divorced - were politically active.

The ascetic establishes contact with the advisors, and sets up a honey trap. She lures the advisor with sexual intimacy, but then offers potential for money, progress, status as rewards for the advisor revolting against the king.

The fourth technique is a "test of fear." For this, the king uses one advisor who organises a boat trip, hunting trip or some other entertainment. The king not only prohibits the entertainment but also insults the organiser publicly. After this, the kings' spies approach the disappointed and annoyed advisors in guise of young students who wish for an uprising against an unjust king.

In this final option, the use of students or "brahmacharis" or those who have not yet come of age is of particular interest. I have found no other explanation in other texts, but the verse itself suggests that this last technique may work best for the younger advisors who are likely to be angered or disappointed easily.

In the remaining verses, Chanakya specifies the kinds of tasks that should be granted to the advisors who pass each test. The phrasing of these verses suggests that the advisors may be re-instated in specific positions should they fail one test but succeed in another. One risk, to me at least, of this technique is that the king may spend his first months or year in office with constant cabinet reshuffles. But, perhaps, this is a less risky option than having poor or disloyal advisors occupying the wrong office.

I hope to post the second half of the chapter later in the week. Till then, keep well.