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Karnataka fallout: BJP’s fierce pursuit of Congress-free India could hurt its chances in other polls, damage Narendra Modi’s image

Why did Narendra Modi allegedly allow horse-trading overtures in Karnataka though he swears to uproot corruption from public life?

Which is part of a bigger question: Why don’t political leaders keep their promises?

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Getty images

This phenomenon is best enunciated by Machiavelli in his seminal work Discourses on Livy, where he compares how the dilettante politician recognises the impracticality of the promises he made in the plaza (public square) when he reaches the palace. Where the hyperbole and irresponsibility of the plaza gets replaced by the pragmatism and moderation of the palace.

Power humbles the instinct for impetuosity. In other words, the idealism of the plaza gets replaced by the realism of the palace. As this transformation was witnessed in many a man, many a time the proverb ‘these men have one mind in the plaza, and the other in the palace’ was born.

So, what are some of the obstacles a first time prime minister like Modi may encounter in keeping his promises?

1. The political system which propels a leader also is the same one which sustains him. Therefore, it is not so easy for him to instantly tamper with it without jeopardising his own regime. It is like trying to correct the foundation of a building while standing in its penthouse.

It is therefore, difficult to decriminalise/sanitise the Parliament/state legislatures as it is the offenders who also win elections. Whether you are a state or a national leader, you can’t do without them. They are vital components which still make up your throne. Which is why Modi had to back the venal team of Yeddy-Reddy.

2. Also, sometimes a resolve of the ruler, especially if publicly stated, may go against another promise he has made. For example, the prime minister’s publicly avowed goal of Congress-mukt Bharat (Congress-free India) may compel him to throw all caution to the wind when authorising the alleged horse-trading in Karnataka.

But brazenly going against what one professes: Na khaoonga, na khaane doonga (neither will I take bribes nor allow others to take) can have serious reputational costs. It is these costs that Congress president Rahul Gandhi in his strategic address, hours after BS Yeddyurappa’s resignation, tried to invoke.

3.International compulsions/forces. There are international intersections that the leader doesn’t oversee alone. For example, the issue of bringing back black money from overseas is not just governed by our laws but also by the laws of the country where such money may be stashed. Plus, no country is immune to war or to the destabilising efforts of its neighbors and powers that be. Some promises may upset the geo-politic apple cart and cannot be kept.


These are some reasons why even a reform-oriented politician would have one mind and voice in the plaza and another in the palace. But too wide a deviation between what is strongly professed and what is practiced can have electoral consequences.

In fact, leaders who have not publicly aired their radical reform intentions are more successful at bringing about those reforms than those who make these intents public.

In his slow rise to power, Abraham Lincoln kept hidden his desire to abolish slavery. Had he made it public he may have never become the President of the United States. Post steering the slavery abolishment bill to its penultimate check post, he realized that the bill would fail for want of two votes. So, he said the two votes must be procured.

When asked,”How?” he remarked: “I am President of the United States, clothed with great power. The abolition of slavery by constitutional provision settles the fate, for all coming time, not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come: A measure of such importance that those two votes must be procured. I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done; but remember that I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those votes”.

His colleagues understood the significance of the remark. The votes were procured. The bill was passed. A huge swathe of humanity broke its bondage. Lincoln died soon after. His death overtook the events and which is why he didn’t have to pay a political price for the deed. The deed accused him but the outcome exonerated him.

Lincoln was capable of this maneuver as he’d built a stellar reputation of honesty. It made people trust him and gave him the ground from which to execute his grand and noble deception.

It is true that many well-meaning leaders had to make deceptive, dishonest and uncharacteristic moves to reform a depraved and entrenched system. Like Lincoln, they suddenly bent the rules. It damaged their reputations but this loss was more than compensated by the humanitarian objective they achieved. In fact, the achievement of this grand goal made them look even more honorable than before.

The cause was large enough to even risk their reputations. They waited for it knowing that it is their reputation of honesty which will help them deceive the devils. They also knew that they can’t do it again and again. It was an ace they could play once.

This was not the case in Karnataka. The stakes didn’t merit you to fire a machine gun which would sully your track record so unmistakably and consequently affect your electoral chances nationwide.

Lincoln also said, “I shall do nothing in malice. What I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing”. Such a perspective gives the leader a moral high ground. Whereas the zealous push for a Congress-mukt Bharat corners the Congress so badly that the party men will have no recourse but to doggedly fight for their lives. Which is what they did in Karnataka.

Fierceness in fight is contagious. Moreover, when you fight again and again with the same person you expose him to your repertoire of moves. If your style of fighting is gladiatorial, you create a gladiator in him. The BJP with its uncompromising, stop-at-nothing war creed is indoctrinating the Congress on how to go for broke.

There is no gainsaying the fact that Modi is trying to bring political reform. His pace is deliberate yet he is trudging forward.

He has to indeed work at the boundaries of the system before he suddenly goes for the core. He must not waste the precious equity of integrity on skirmishes. He must stay in the system, restore his image of rectitude, and reform the system. Reputational loss today may mean electoral loss tomorrow and the dreams of substantial reform crashing the day after.

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