Had Chānakya been a Western philosopher (like Plato or Aristotle), history probably would have treated him with much more respect. His Arthaśāstra is easily the Earth's first treatise on statecraft, which dealt with economy and governance, foreign policy and war strategy. Indian history, written first by the aliens and then by the left-liberal crowd, with its obsession with a nebulous ‘composite culture’, has not done justice to the great political-philosopher. Westerners, in their ineffable arrogance, used to refer to Chānakya as the Indian Machiavelli although the former preceded him by about two millennia.
Writing a novel steeped in history is no easy task, because the author has to balance historical accuracy with an engaging plot. Ashwin Sanghi's Chānakya's Chant is a fascinating saga of two Chānakyas, the original political-philosopher of the fourth century BCE and his modern incarnation, Gangäsagar Mishra. As the story swings to and fro with a gap of 2300 years, the reader is gripped by its enthralling narrative, delicious irony and accurate rendering of Indian idiom into English, without losing the flavour of either, which is no mean task. The novel is characterized by meticulous research, great felicity of expression and suave story-telling.
The story of the original Chānakya runs parallel to the known history of the political philosopher with subtle adlibbing to make it an interesting read. As Chānakya fulfills his vow to banish Dhanananda and coronate Chandragupta, he meets his childhood love, Suvasini after prolonged separation but sacrifices his love for the sake of Bharat, which he strove hard to build. For the great political philosopher it was country before self. In return he earns her wrath and curse. She however offers him a means of redemption that was to come several thousands of years later. It ordains that a man should meditate upon a mantra Suvasini cites, and ‘use it to advance a woman’. Two thousand three hundred years later Chānakya’s modern incarnation Gangäsagar Mishra, a professor of history, chances upon the mantra (Chānakya’s Chant) in the form of an inscription on a granite block.
Gangäsagar enthrones his protégé, Chandini Gupta, the daughter of a poor pan vendor as the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy by clever manoeuvring. The novel begins with Chandini’s swearing in as the Prime Minster of India, watched on television by her terminally ill mentor from a hospital bed. The rest of the story was told as a flash back. It lays bare every nuance of contemporary politics: caste, gender and religion and of course the Indian brand of secularism. Careers were made and broken; reputations made and willfully sullied. Human life is worth nothing if it does not suit someone’s political ascendance and no strategy too mean. Favours were granted and called; honey-traps laid to bring enemies into submission and hemlock flowed to eliminate them. If a fellow politician were to be sacrificed to swing public sympathy and electoral gain, well, it was worth doing it. There is a hijacked plane, engineered riots and stage-managed shootouts. There is the nexus between industrialists and politicians. Industrialists were used to bankroll elections and the recalcitrant ones were brought into submission with the aid of pliant trade unions and law enforcement agencies. Secret service personnel were used for political ends. Honest journalists were trapped and manipulated to perform sting operations on political enemies. And there is even mention of land allotment to SEZs and the telecom scam. The rumour about a former prime minister’s illegitimate child, sensationalized by his political secretary in a tell-all book about palace intrigues and amorous exploits, was used with thin disguise.
India did pay a great tribute to the author of Arthaśāstra by naming the diplomatic enclave in Delhi ‘Chānakyapuri’, but, how one wishes India had a foreign policy mandarin of the calibre of Chānakya or his modern incarnation, Gangäsagar! While Chandini as the suave foreign minister wows her own party and opposition members on the floor of parliament, her mentor pulls ‘RAW’ strings to play China against Pakistan by having the Chinese arrest a Pakistani spy who was ‘about to foment trouble in China’s Uyghur minority province’. It is certainly feasible, for Xinxiang is China’s ‘Achilles’ heel’ and Pakistan is the world’s crucible and exporter of Jihadi terror. Another stratagem pulled off by the wily Gangäsagar was to have adopted Russian designs for gas centrifuges (presumably for nuclear reactors) sold to North Korea and Libya, both pariahs for the US, making them believe they were actually buying them from Pakistan. If only India could pull off such a stratagem to sow dissension between Pakistan and the US!
Contrast these coups with Jawaharlal Nehru’s starry-eyed idealism in being obsessed with NAM (a body comprising of tin-pot dictators and banana republics) or I. K. Gujral’s idiocy in giving away India’s ‘intelligence assets’ to Pakistan. It takes years for intelligence agencies to place and cultivate assets in the higher echelons of an enemy nation, not to speak of great personal risks its officers take.
Sanghi’s otherwise meticulous research was marred by a few factual errors. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar used to send eighty five and fifty four representatives respectively to parliament (p.392), but before these states were bifurcated in 2001. After the creation of UttaraKhand (5) and Jharkhand (14) the number of constituencies in UP and Bihar were reduced to 80 and 40 respectively. Similarly, in the Indian constitution, there is no provision for President’s rule at the centre (p. 404). However, this error was corrected two pages later with reference to a ‘caretaker prime minister’.
Sanghi did not bother to please the left-lib crowd by highlighting filth, poverty and squalor. Nor did he use 'adultery, incest and masturbation' to make it to a Booker's list, although the novel is not devoid of sex. There is just a modicum of it, natural and otherwise, that is germane to the story and no more. But is it necessary for India's woman prime minister to have a fling with her male British counterpart?
Chānakya's Chant is the story of contemporary India told boldly with sardonic humour. And for once, the blurb about the book being ‘cracker of a page-turner’ is true! As the story winds down to a stunning dénouement it makes readers hold their breath.
Chānakya's Chant. Ashwin Sanghi. 2010. Westland. Chennai. Pages x + 448. Price Rs 195