Friday, 20 January 2012

Managing and Shaping Public Opinion

Book 1, Chapter 12

After that long hiatus, back to this massive tome. No more excuses as the regular readers will already know that far too often my job, hectic life and other writing assignments get in the way of this blog. Still, I do offer my apologies for the delay.

This chapter begins to exemplify Chanakya's reputation as a wily and ruthless political operator. He focusses on ways of gathering information on public discontent and dissent, prescribes ways of dealing with this, and ends with a crucial bit of warning for the ruler.

He begins by explaining that having appointed an intelligence network to gather information on key officials, priests, advisors, a ruler should start a network of informers who can gather information on the public.

The initial verses are quite specific, advising that the ruler assign two groups of spies to public areas. He includes religious sites and events, public meetings, political and religious events, entertainment areas as well as any place of significant public gathering and interaction. He recommends that the two groups of spies (more aptly agent provocateurs) mingle with the crowds and take opposing sides in opining about the ruler. One group of these agent provocateurs praises the king's policies and performance while the other critiques the ruler for harsh punishments - and wait for this terrifically modern gem - tax collection.

Both sides ought to judge the responses of the crowd, noting their support or opposition to both views. Having established the views of the populace, the pro-ruler faction should attempt to convince the opposition of the ruler's justice. This wonderful moment of PR and spin in the ancient world is also intriguingly rich in details. Chanakya suggests that the pro-ruler side explain that the earlier times were marked by anarchy and rule of force, and the state/king were created by the gods to ensure peace, stability and the rule of law.

For the same reason, and to facilitate the smooth functioning of the state, the ancient sages decreed that the state must receive one-sixth of agricultural produce and one-tenth of commercial profits and a small portion of gold from its citizens. Indeed as he points out that even the ascetics must contribute to the state, paying one-sixth of whatever they have collected in the forest or through alms to the state (this final point may be a useful reminder to all the various religion ashrams, churches and madrasas in India!). Even the saints, Chanakya points out, agree that the ruler who protects them is eligible for collecting taxes.

Similarly, the pro-ruler faction of agent provocateurs must explain to the populace that harsh laws and punishments are not arbitrary or unjust, but rather a way of ensuring safety of the citizens' life, honour and property, as well as to discourage criminals.

Here Chanakya takes a tangent into providing a reminder of a king's divine status, pointing out that a ruler (with an implicit assumption that he/she is a just one) is Indra's representative on earth and therefore critiquing him is akin to criticising the gods. Curiously, Chanakya does not provide an older theological or philosophical reference for this idea which makes me wonder if this isn't his own idea of spin.

Moving on, he continues that while keeping the populace supportive of the ruler is part of the spies' duty, they must also assess and identify any discontent or dissent.

He explains that there are citizens who aid the king with property, gold and monies, but also with their attempts to calm dissent. These citizens try to prevent revolt and nullify opposition to the king through not only their material resources but also by their active ability to persuade others. The king must keep an eye on such loyal citizens and reward them frequently with honours, money and other means. The king must also attempt to win back any citizen(s) who may be discontent with the king, using a host of means including persuasion and rewards.

There will of course be a category of discontent citizens who cannot be won back by the king, despite his/her best efforts. Here Chanakya demonstrates his ruthless streak, advising that the ruler create confusion in their ranks, turning one against the other until any revolt is neutralised. The ruler may also accuse these dissenters of tax evasion or treason, thus spoiling their reputations as respected citizens. Finally, once the public opinion has turned against these citizens, the ruler ought to have them killed in ways that can be written off as accidents or suicides. Another way to deal with determined dissenters is to force them into exile as well as turn their friends, associates and relatives against them.

Chanakya points out that it is common that prominent citizens who are afraid or angry with the ruler join the enemy, either internal or external. Such citizens are also quick to join conspiracies or plots against the state. One way of dealing with such citizens is for the king to appoint them to the court or palace posts, thus keeping them (and often their loved ones) in his/her control. Another possibility is that should they not agree to be part of the royal service, these prominent citizens may be held prisoners. Similarly, they may also be sent to far off mines or projects where they are not only at risk but also will lose contact with any and all collaborators.

Chanakya repeats the need for a ruler to use both reward and punishment to motivate citizens (fear and greed principle at work in ancient times). He points out that rewards not only work as sweeteners for those who receive them but also are an inspiration to others. Again, he recommends the use of the four pillars of governance, saam-daam-dand-bhed principles for keeping the populace in his favour.

The chapter ends with a warning to the ruler. Chanakya warns the ruler to remain alert towards the opinions of the populace, recommmending swift measure to neutralise any dissent. He points out that just as a rope woven of many fragments can be strong enough to restrain a maddened elephant, many weak and poor citizens joined together can be strong enough to bring down the ruler.

This coded warning is intriguing in part as it suggests that Chanakya was well aware of the principles of "rule by consent" even in this period and aware that a popular rebellion could overturn the most entrenched royal rule. Once again, a most modern thinker indeed!

The next chapter continues with the idea of managing dissent, in particular focussing on managing and neutralising those who are strongly opposed. Hope to continue posting on that soon.