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20 April 2011

History of Morality in Power Politics

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There is a debate among scholars as to whether great individuals should be restricted by moral values while trying to accomplish their political agenda or be allowed to freely pursue their policies, violating and ignoring them. Kotilya in his book Arthashastra advises the Mauryan king to use all types of deceptions to bring the tribes into the fold of his empire. 

Machiavelli, the Renaissance scholar in his book the Prince suggests that the ruler should lie, deceive and use all tricks to achieve political success. Both Kotilya and Machiavelli provide a practical guideline to rulers.


Some of the dictators of the modern period were so impressed by these ideas that they faithfully followed them in order to become successful rulers. One of the important aspects of their theories is that they have liberated great individuals from all moral bonds and encouraged them to lie and deceive in justification of their inhuman and brutal acts.

There are many examples where historians and politicians justify the immoral acts of rulers on the basis of realpolitik. When Shahjahan, just after his succession to the throne, ordered the assassination of all claimants to the throne, people were shocked by this brutal act and silently denounced the emperor. However, one of the court historians, Saleh Kambo, in his book Shahjahannama, justified the emperor, stating that by executing the princes who could claim to be king, he prevented a civil war in which thousands of people would have been killed. Therefore, to kill few people was better than to plunge the country into disorder and chaos.

When Shivaji (d.1689) assassinated Afzal Khan by deception, he was criticised for this act because he violated the contract made with his rival and betrayed him. Tilak, the Maharashtran politician, who revived the image of Shivaji and elevated him to the pedestal of a hero, justified him on the grounds that great people were above ordinary moral values. Therefore, they should not be judged on these bases. He alleged that their acts were for the larger interests of the nation.

There are many examples where rulers and great individuals who violated moral values were judged by their success and given a dignified place in history. Lord Acton, the British historian, is not of this opinion. He argued that those who violate moral values should not be forgiven. He vehemently declared that if they escaped punishment in their lifetime, history should not spare them; it should try them on the charges of the violation of moral values and punish them as criminals. They should not be admired, praised or eulogised but denounced and condemned.

On the other hand, we see how imperial powers have used moral values as a tool to assert their superiority over colonised nations. The officials of the East India Company in its early period, when it was a trading company, were corrupt and accumulated wealth by using immoral and illegal means. However, as soon as the company acquired power, its higher-ups decided to root out corruption and reconstruct its bureaucracy which became honest, upright, and observed high moral values in dealing with the public. That’s why they were respected by Indians.

They ruled the subcontinent on the basis of their moral character. However, in extending their political power and dealing with the native rulers, they followed Machiavellian policies and whenever their interest required they violated their treaties and ignored their contracts. However, the common man of India retained the image of honest administrative officers who provided them justice, peace and order. This shows the power of morality.

When a society declines, it also loses its moral values. When the Mughal dynasty was disintegrating, Nadir Shah (1739) invaded India and the Mughal emperor, not finding himself in a position to defend his empire, made peace in exchange for a huge amount of money. When Nadir Shah prepared to go back to Iran, one of the Mughal nobles, Sa’at Yar Khan, who was not appointed to the post that he wanted, told the invader that the amount which was given to him was peanuts; Delhi was a rich city and the treasury of the Mughals was there for the taking. Nadir Shah acted on his suggestion and took away a century’s worth of treasures of the Mughals.

Thus, morality is easily observed when a nation is at the height of its power. When a society is in decline, selfish motives overpower the interests of society and moral values are ignored.