From Kautilya to Congress: Downfall of Public Opinion in Indian Public Life

From Kautilya to Congress: Downfall of Public Opinion in Indian Public Life

The era of Hindu monarchies was one where the rulers genuinely feared and respected public opinion and conducted themselves in tune with it. In democracy, public opinion has degenerated into the sham of perception-management. We trace this downfall with concrete examples from history.

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From Kautilya to Congress: Downfall of Public Opinion in Indian Public Life

The Buddhist Period

The Buddhist period not only continued the earlier tradition of debates, discussions and decisions in public assemblies, but made its own valuable contributions. It is noteworthy that in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, a philosophical work, Bhagavan Buddha found it necessary to tell his disciple Ananda that, “ so long as the people of the Vajji-Gana hold full and frequent public assemblies, so long they may be expected not to decline but to prosper.” Indeed, Buddha repeatedly stressed on the point that such public assemblies had to compulsorily meet frequently and attendance had to be full. The success of each such public discussion was measured by decision-making and problem-solving: solutions had to be found in a timely manner instead of the current national malaise of indefinitely postponing solutions.

Our ancients were far wiser than we can ever fathom.

The Buddhist Era which was dominated by powerful clans (Gana-s) had a thriving system of collecting public opinion publicly. Every city and town had a common Sanghagara (Town Hall) where people as young as fourteen up to aged people participated in vigorous public debates on various issues. The other vital point that catches our attention is the fact that they had full freedom to discuss the business of the State itself. A brilliant story illustrates this point like no other.

Maharaja Pasenadi of the Aikṣvāka dynasty ruling from Shravasti (Sāvatthī) proposed to marry a princess belonging to the Sākya clan. The proposal by itself is quite routine. But what makes it interesting is the fact that he made it public and asked the permission of his people. Members of the Sākya clan met in their own Sanghahara to discuss the proposal. This episode opens two important insights:

1. Each clan or Gana had its own Assembly Hall apart from the common Sanghaghara.

2. The importance that the general public attached to even the private affairs of their ruler.

The importance of the second point cannot be underemphasised. Why was it necessary for the people to give their approval for the ruler’s marriage? The answer: our political philosophers and Rishis right from the Vedic age understood that running a society and thereby a country was essentially the delicate art of maintaining a fine balance. They grasped the fundamental human impulse that the moment one group gains disproportionate power, the entire structure will collapse sooner than later. Thus, the Gana and the Mahajanapada system (roughly speaking, republics) that characterised the Buddhist Era remained a unified whole as long as this balance was maintained among these clans. This among others is a major factor behind the rule that people were generally discouraged from marrying outside their own Gana. It is also the reason Pasenadi had to seek public approval for his marriage. In hindsight, it appears that it was an extremely wise and highly prudent arrangement. The best example of how things can go horribly wrong is available right before our eyes: the marriage of an Italian lady to the son of a former Prime Minister of India. Did Indira or Rajiv Gandhi seek permission from the Indian people before embarking on such a sensitive decision? The same principle applies in the case of Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy who has all but Christianised his entire administration.

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From Kautilya to Congress: Downfall of Public Opinion in Indian Public Life

This well-oiled system of the Ganas and Mahajanapadas was also its fatal flaw. Over time, fierce clan loyalties weakened the overall civilizational consciousness, which is the only foundation for territorial and political unity. It was precisely this weakness that alarmed Chanakya, who understood that the Sanatana national unity had to be forged from a different steel. Which brings us to the next epoch: of how public opinion was collected in the Kautilyan State.

Public Opinion in the Mauryan Era

Although the full text of the Arthashastra was unearthed only in the beginning of the twentieth century, its imprint remained inextricable throughout Hindu political history. It is not an accident that the text itself disappeared by the twelfth century CE, roughly coinciding with the rise of the Muslim Sultanate in north and north-western India. Indeed, by the 17th century, the widespread opinion among Hindu litterateurs was that the Arthashastra was a “wicked and cruel work.” This is a reflection of the weakness of a psyche that discards Chanakya.

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From Kautilya to Congress: Downfall of Public Opinion in Indian Public Life

However, whether later kings realised or not, they essentially ruled their Empires according to Chanakyan diktats. In their administrative structures, military Mandalas, spy networks, and taxation, Kautilya was like air: all-encompassing, inescapable, inevitable.

If Kautilya set up an iron-clad administration and a ruthless political machinery, the philosopher in him had recognised the fundamental truth that the only force that could sustain all this was the goodwill of the people. And this goodwill was expressed through public opinion. Equally, when this goodwill turned to wrath, the people wouldn’t hesitate to kill the king—Kautilya mentions several kings who were killed in this fashion.

Thus, rather than await and sense the direction of public opinion, Kautilya proactively recommends the setting up of what can be called the Department of News Writers. In practice, this system generally took the form of issuing royal writs ( sasanas) under the seal of the king. The officer in-charge of these writs was called Lekha (literally, writer). Writs were classified typically as general purpose, royal commands, gifts, donations, or remission of taxes. There were specialised writs related to commerce and business/merchant guilds.

The qualifications of the Lekha were exacting. Here is a partial list. The Lekha had to

· Possess neat handwriting

· Be skilled in grammar, composition, and reading

· Be in constant touch with day-to-day events throughout the kingdom

· Keep a close watch on the events happening in other states, especially those with whom his state had an alliance

The other high office dealing with public opinion was the Espionage Bureau, which directly reported to the King. The Espionage Bureau recruited and sent spies in various disguises throughout the kingdom to collect news. No information was deemed trivial. News writers were stationed at provincial headquarters and they in turn, sent their reports to the Espionage Bureau at the Capital. It was a three-tiered system housed by the Espionage Bureau at the top, the provincial news writers, and wandering spies. Information was encrypted using cipher-writing (gudalekhya) and transmitted through carrier-pigeons. But the most remarkable feature of this system was the fact that spies and news writers were unknown to one another, and the Espionage Bureau collected information from other sources as well. Action was taken only if all these versions agreed with one another. News and information was collected from various sources: gathering at public assembly halls, parks, rest houses, festivals, fairs, and temples.

Public Opinion in Later Eras

Chanakya’s system indeed became a great blueprint that later kings followed. For example, the rich details of the Chola and Pandyan administrative system tell us of the Manrams (literally, “halls,” or public assemblies) where the public met and discussed social and political questions impacting them. The method of beating drums, blowing conches and trumpets to summon the people to these meetings was common in our villages even in the 1970s. Decisions of public importance taken in such meetings—such as sending requests for tax breaks, building tanks, making temple-endowments, famine relief, etc—were binding even on the king.

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From Kautilya to Congress: Downfall of Public Opinion in Indian Public Life

The history of the magnificent Vijayanagara Empire is replete with examples of the manner in which the monarchs feared public opinion. The usurpation of the throne by Saluva Narasimha caused huge uproar among the public and he as king had to go to extraordinary lengths to pacify the people. The same public opinion welcomed the accession of Sri Krishnadevaraya with open arms. And the same Krishnadevaraya had to abolish the marriage tax—payable both by the bride and the groom at the time of marriage—bowing to the force of public opinion.


When we speak of the various golden ages of Hindu rule, what we really mean is that these Hindu rulers respected and even feared public opinion. The golden age was possible because there was this level of genuine harmony on the part of both the ruler and the people.

In many ways, the present system of democracy makes a sham of public opinion because our current political class is bothered merely about perception, not public opinion. Public opinion is meaningless unless both proactive action and timely redressal occur, measured by outcome. Unlike the Hindu monarchies of the past where direct appeal to the King was taken seriously, today’s political class has insulated itself from the public using a million degrees of separation. Cowardice and not decision is the mantra of the current Indian political class.

I will end this series with a news report I read long ago. The episode happened sometime in the early 1970s. A poor villager was fighting some case in our wonderful court system. The case had dragged on for years. It was time for yet another appearance in the court. But this time, when he gave his testimony, the judge told him, “You are lying. And you know that. Why?” The villager replied: “Why not? Our great ministers who have taken oath on all kinds of Holy Books lie with a clean conscience. I am merely following them.”

Think about this episode in the context of public opinion in our own time.


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