Corruption is an abuse of public resources and position in public life for private gain (‘Swarth’ means a private gain in Hindi, hence the title). Corruption has precisely been defined as a deviant human behavior associated with the motivation of private gain at public expense and as such has persisted for centuries. Arthashastra by Chanakya provides an elaborate description of the menace. This sophisticated and detailed treatise on statecraft is essentially prescriptive in nature. This confirms the fact that corruption was rampant enough in ancient India to necessitate expert advice on how to tame it.
Chanakya was a sagacious minister in the Kingdom of Chandragupta Maurya. He believed that “men are naturally fickle-minded” and “exhibit a constant change in their disposition”. By this he meant that honesty is not a virtue that would remain consistent lifelong and the temptation to make easy gains through corrupt means can override the trait of honesty at any time. Just as it isn’t possible not to taste honey placed on the tip of the tongue similarly it is not possible for a person dealing with money (revenue officials) not to taste the money in however small a quantity. Corruption is so obvious and yet so mysterious. Chanakya reflected serious concerns about opacity in the operations of the corrupt. Illegal transactions were so shrouded in mist that he compared embezzlers to fish moving underwater and the virtual impossibility of detecting when exactly the fish is drinking water.
Chanakya has been one of the greatest administrative thinkers in history. He argued that too much personal interaction or union among higher executives leads to corruption. This is because human emotions and personal concerns act as impediments to the successful running of an administration, which is basically a rule-based impersonal affair. Chanakya was well aware that corruption was not only in executive but also in the judiciary. In an atmosphere strangled by corruption, he perhaps wanted to ensure that the litigants are encouraged and given voice to air their legitimate grievances. For detecting financial misappropriation and judicial impropriety, Chanakya prescribed reliance on elaborate espionage networks. Spies were recruited and they were to keep a watch on officers, officials, accountants, clerks and all others who were at the position of tasting honey. On successful detection of embezzlement cases, he advocated hefty fines to be imposed apart from confiscation of the profits and position. Since taxes paid by the people are to be utilized for their welfare, any loss of revenue affects the welfare of the society at large. This is precisely the reason why Chanakya explicitly argued that the fines imposed should be ‘in proportion to the value of the work done, the number of days taken, the amount of capital spent and the number of wages paid’.
Interestingly, Chanakya also dealt with the concept of ‘whistle-blowers’. Any informant (Sachuka) who provided details about financial wrongdoing was entitled an award of one-sixth of the amount in question. If the informant happened to be a government servant (Bhritaka), he was to be given only one-twelfth of the total amount. The former’s share was more because exposing corruption while being outside the system was more challenging. However, in the case of Bhritakas, striving for corruption-free administration was more of a duty that was ideally expected of them. At the same time, he also warned about providing wrong information or not being able to prove the accusations.
In an atmosphere of all-round corruption, honesty became a virtue and not a desired duty. Therefore, Chanakya argued for advertising the cases of increase in revenue due to the honest and dedicated efforts by giving rewards and promotions. Bestowing public honor creates a sense of pride, which acts as a deterrent to corruption. He also proposed a number of measures to avoid cases of corruption arising at all. Several positions in each department were to be made temporary. Permanency was to be reserved as a reward granted by the king to those who help augment revenue rather than eating up hard-earned resources. He favored the periodic transfer of government servants. This was done with the intention of not giving them enough time to pick holes in the system and manipulate it to their advantage.
The Arthashastra by Chanakya thus shows that the ancient system of governance and administration was quite contemporary in operational guidelines when dealing with corruption. It also quite convincingly demonstrates that corruption is not an exclusive feature of modern times alone. The fact that the menace has survived and thrived through the ages speaks volumes about its endurance. Governments of all historical eras have recognized its illegality and devised legal instruments to tackle the problem, but they have not been able to overcome its spread as well as acceptability in society. If corruption has persisted through centuries, what is it that has stopped administrative systems from eradicating it?
Was Chanakya right in his generalization that ‘humans are fickle-minded’? Many would disagree. Interestingly, however, even Chanakya, despite having such an understanding of human nature and behavior, never used it to justify corruption. Rather, he realized it’s inevitability but chose to remain positive and committed to root it out in the administration through elaborate and strict measures. We can see many of his tactics and measures still in practice not only in India but in many regions around the world, be it espionage, whistle-blowing, impermanence, etc. This is the real significance of Arthashastra as far as the issue of corruption in contemporary times is concerned.