Sharad Mathur

In Defence of Machiavelli

Sharad Mathur

Portrait_of_Niccolò_Machiavelli_by_Santi_di_Tito - Web

The portrait of Nicolo Machiavelli adds to the mass perception of the 15th century Italian philosopher. He looks cold. He looks cunning. He looks like he is waiting with a dagger for you to turn around. The expression on his face goes well with the ideas he imparts to the leaders of principalities. He totally looks like the fellow who would advise a leader to go for deception over force to attain his objectives. In the words of Julius Ceasar,
“….has a lean and hungry look,
He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.”
No wonder in popular culture a reference to ‘Machiavellian ways’ is essentially a reference to deceitful and treacherous ways. I remember upsetting a very significant and accomplished individual by mentioning how much I admire his use of Machiavellian tactics for greater good! Such powerful is the imagery of Machiavellian ways that the scheming, plotting, deceitful Machiavellian character has to be evil with an arid heart filled with tar. Richard III had to be with a deformity and not so popular with the ladies. Him murdering his own brother and everyone else, including two children, who he perceived a threat, was not enough. Devil, the second most powerful being after the God, had to take the shape of a lowly reptile for being scheming enough to deny mankind its paradise.
So, is the Machiavellian thought pure evil?
I would argue not. A large chunk of his ideas land beyond the lines of morality. That is probably why his book, “The Prince”, found its way on the Pope’s list of prohibited books soon after it was first published. It was written by Machiavelli in a jail cell and his idea was to gain favour with his captor, Lorenzo de Medici. I am not sure if it worked. However, I am sure that “The Prince” was a revolution of sorts in the renaissance literature. It grants supremacy to practicality over ideals. In its 26 chapters, Machiavelli talks about different types of principalities, role of a prince as a military commander, character of a prince, and the contemporary politics of Italy. Most controversial parts being about how the character of a prince should be.
Let us explore some of those themes.

End More Important than Means

He urges leaders to use wrong means to maintain their power. ‘…it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity’, writes Machiavelli in the 15th chapter of “The Prince”. While the liberal thought would be vary of how the said ‘necessity’ would be defined by the leader and more often than not would adopt a sceptical view of it. And there is merit in that. Yet, context often demands the leaders to take less than perfect actions for greater good.
Was it honourable for the American leaders to dump Osama Bin Laden’s body in the sea? Was it honourable for the Indian state to bury Afzal Guru’s body in the backyard of Tihar Jail and not hand it over to his relatives? The answer to these questions cannot be a resounding yes. But they were effective decisions. The grave of Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of Salman Taseer (a powerful politician in Pakistan who was apparently killed for not being extremist enough), has turned into a shrine. Recently, a picture of Pakistani Special Forces soldiers offering prayers at this shrine was doing rounds on the internet! Killing Laden was pointless if the US was to allow his ideas a physical epicentre. The execution of Afzal Guru raises enough separatist fervour in Kashmir. A shrine in his name would have definitely not helped the cause of the Indian state.
Pakistani ASF Personnel at Mumtaz Qadri's 'Shrine'.

Pakistani ASF Personnel at Mumtaz Qadri’s ‘Shrine’.

Be Feared, Not Loved

Machiavelli also draws criticism for urging the princes to opt for being feared over being loved, if a choice is to be made between the two. This suggestion is rooted in his understanding of the human nature; he considers humans to be naturally ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, and covetous. Not something most, including me would approve of. However, in adaptive situations under which our leaders have to solve complex problems, a simple win-win solution does not work.
Take for example the case of Vihar Lake. Encroachment near the lake, which was the source of water supply, meant pollution of the lake as the people from the slums would bathe, wash, and dump refuse in the lake. To save Mumbai from impending epidemic of diarrhoea, it was imperative for Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to demolish the slum. However, despite many requests and directives from the BMC, residents of slum would not move to the nearby location they were given an accommodation at. And it was just the matter of inertia. Then entered GR Khairnar, the demolition man, an officer with a reputation. He lands up at the slum with a demolition party and asks the residents to leave or he would start the demolition with their belongings still in their shanties. The residents pleaded with him to give them some time and they were granted that. Within next three days, all 1800 families from the slum moved. The Vihar Lake was now encroachment free.
‘Hence a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated’, writes Machiavelli.
Did it create a sense of resentment against Khairnar and in turn BMC? No, it did not. Because Khairnar used his influence to help the people to settle down in their new dwellings. He helped them to avail electricity connections. He helped them access potable water by building hand-pumps. Instead of resentment, he earned their admiration. They would invite him to be a part of their celebrations during festivals.
Could this be possible without the initial show of strength Khairnar made?

Deceit: A Potent Tool

Deceit is one of the core Machiavellian tactics and often despised because it comes across as weakness. Great men are supposed to take what they want with honour. Fair and square. And Machiavelli does not disagree.
‘Everyone admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep faith, and to live with integrity and not with craft’, writes Machiavelli in the 18th chapter. However, he also adds, ‘nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account, and have known how to circumvent the intellect of men by craft…’. In a world of image management and PR driven media stories, it does not sound far from reality. But can deceit ever be justified?
While being fair is a virtue, perceived as being fair is important too. That is why in the trial of Ajmal Kasab, the court hearings were not held behind closed doors and were covered extensively by the media. It would be naive to assume that public sentiment has no bearing on the judgments in high-profile cases. Take for example, the hanging of Afzal Guru and commuting of Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar’s death sentence into a life in prison. A trained terrorist like Kasab understood it well. Soon, front pages of Indian newspapers were covered with picture of a teary eyed Kasab who his lawyer claimed was ‘going through trying times’. He also tendered a confession, in which he said “If I am hanged for this, I am not bothered. I don’t want any mercy from the court”.
Machiavelli writes ‘he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived’.

Ajmal Kasab

Ujjwal Nikam, the public prosecutor was not willing to be deceived. When the media personnel asked him for his view on why Kasab was crying, he said sarcastically “he is demanding mutton biryani.” The Indian media took his comment literally, and soon it was also on every TV channel. But he did not correct the misunderstanding and countered Kasab’s tears in the court of public perception.
The morality of Nikam’s action can be debated and has been debated, but within eight months, he secured a death sentence for Kasab. Moreover, didn’t his stand on Kasab get vindicated when, within six months of making teary eyed confessions, Kasab retracted his statement. He claimed that he came to Mumbai to try his luck in films. He alleged that the police had picked him from the beach where he was just enjoying the breeze! All this despite clear cctv visuals of him shooting innocent people at the CST station!


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