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In Tamil language, there is a proverb for a particular sequence of actions performed. The proverb is, "Pillaiya killi vittu, thottila aatradhu", meaning, "Pinching a child and then oscillating the child's hammock". (Rough translation)

This is usually said when politicians instigate something controversial and then they themselves try to pacify the situation. People who are innocent, wouldn't even know that they are being manipulated by the politicians.

Is there any equivalent saying in English? The closest I could find is "Tiger in a sheep's clothing". But I am not really convinced with it since I think it doesn't exactly capture this behaviour.

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The core idea in your proverb seems to be similar to that of the "arsonist firefighter." Such a person is said to be

setting a fire in order to put it out

An example of this expression used in the context of the phenomenon it describes appears in Andrew Murr, "A Moth to the Flame," in Newsweek (June 30, 2002):

Sadly, the scenario is not that rare; in the last year alone, more than a half-dozen firefighters around the country have been charged with starting a blaze, or intending to. "The big one is the vanity hero type," says Doug Allen, an arson expert—the firefighter who starts blazes just so he can put them out.

A figurative use of a similar phrase appears in Helene Stapinski, "'Transmission' Shifts Between Clumsy and Charming," in the Chicago Tribune [June 24, 2004):

Like a firefighter who sets a blaze in order to put out the flames and appear heroic, Arjun [Mehta, the novel's ptotagonist] unleashes a computer virus in the hopes that he will solve the problem and be rehired.

I don't think that the expression "setting a fire in order to put it out" has yet attained the status of a modern proverbial phrase in English, but I do think that it may be well on its way toward such status.

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  • I like this more than @AndyT's answer because this incorporates the malicious intension. Though Andy's answer talks about a creating a problem and then solving, it might very well be a problem that might be beneficial to tackle. – Nagarajan Shanmuganathan Jan 23 '19 at 19:56
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I'd paraphrase what your politician is doing as "creating a problem so that he can solve it". It's not an idiom though. So I googled it. And having typed "create a problem", google suggested an autocomplete:

create a problem sell a solution

Google reckons it has 290 million hits... but most of them are using words from the phrase not the phrase itself. By using quote marks to restrict it to sites including the words as two separate phrases, there are only 320 hits.

So it's not a widely used phrase, so you can't really call it an idiom. It's catchy though, and clear what it means. I might use it, or something similar, maybe:

Create a problem so that you can offer the solution

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I cannot think of any similar idiom that uses behaviours (e.g., pinching, rocking) to convey the idea that seems to be conveyed by the Tamil saying. However, Janus-faced, and equivalently but less poetically, two-faced, both seem to convey the idea of duplicitous, contradictory behaviour.

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I found the various comments about the saying interesting and perceptive! But what is distinctive about this Tamil saying is that it invites a dual perspective: the meaning is to be gathered from taking into account both the 'old man' and the 'baby'. The truth is not only in the 'doing', but also in the 'who' it is done to.

On the one hand the old man pacifies the baby by rocking the cradle in order to both hide the fact that he has caused it pain, as well as to be praised as being caring. Throughout, the old man knows that the baby can never speak about its tormentor. He is malevolent and also diabolical. On the other hand, the 'baby' has no way of telling who has hurt it & how it happened because it cannot speak. It is helpless and also vulnerable in being deeply asleep. The baby feels fear and endures harm but cannot say who caused it.

The truth to be learned is somewhat of a conundrum: the action here encompasses a kind of inevitable harm.

The main difference is that this proverb seems to focus on causing a problem in order to solve it, whereas that one is more concerned with doing something cruel or unethical and then assuming a mantle of piety.

The Tamil saying shows both a malicious ruthless intention object & an utter helplessness in the face of such harm. The Hindi one is about the issue of 'hypocrisy'—the cruelty portrayed here is meant to highlight the 'hypocrisy': pretending to the world that is one very good while doing a lot of harmful things on the sly.

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