Kejriwal, Nitish and the Art of Saying Sorry

Published: February 26, 2015 01:44 IST
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(Critical theorist and writer Rukmini Bhaya Nair is a professor at IIT Delhi. She is the author of several academic books, three volumes of poetry and a novel recently long-listed for the DSC Prize.)

Political apologies have been much studied, as have politicians' promises to perform. One stark contrast between these two kinds of speech-acts is that apologies relate to a speaker's past acts of omission or commission, while promises imply a future act on the part of the speaker. Promises spur hope, while apologies convey humility. Together, they seem to offer a winning political combine.
 
The recent unconditional apologies offered by Arvind Kejriwal and Nitish Kumar for their mistakes in thoughtlessly giving up mid-term on their public duties, followed by promises never to do so again, offer textbook examples of the way in which the discourse of politics embodies an emotional relationship between politician and their publics.Kejriwal has said he was humbled for showing 'ahankar' while Nitish Kumar has 'hath-jorkar' pleaded for 'maafi' (begged for forgiveness with folded hands). The first has been handsomely forgiven; the other hopes to be.
 
More recently, Rahul Gandhi has absented himself from the country for a bout of cool reflection at a testing time when the Land Acquisition Bill, with which he was earlier quite involved, is being hotly debated. Under the circumstances, the question arises: Will Mr. Gandhi, too, apologize for his mysterious withdrawal when he returns? Whatever the answer to such speculation, it is unlikely that any explanation on Rahul Gandhi's part will have the same political valence as the apologies tendered by Messrs. Kumar and Kejriwal.
 
The point is that apologies and promises in the public sphere are as much about the perceived persona of political leaders as about rational evaluations based on 'hard facts' about their achievements. These particular speech-acts are essentially assessments of moral worth predicated on collective judgements of intangibles such as a politician's sincerity, maturity, loyalty, motivation and so forth. This is what makes them so interesting. But what next? Well, one answer to this naive query is obvious.
 
Both Mr. Kejriwal and Mr. Kumar will have to 'prove' through their actions that they will 'deliver' on their promises. The trouble, though, is that 'proof' and 'delivery' are mere words in the same way that the apology and the promise are merely verbal constructs. How do words translate into action on the ground? This conundrum is at the heart of much political discourse and I shall try and suggest a partial answer here.
 
It is this. Many of us subscribe to the perhaps unspoken but cherished belief that words don't matter, only action talks. Relying on this odd belief, we the people willingly forgive a farrago of unverifiable assertions uttered during the dramatic twists and turns of the electoral process. No matter how smudged the word-slate of a politician in election mode, we presume that it can be wiped sparkling clean once the process of governing begins. However, such an easy bifurcation between words and actions is, in my view, both dangerous and fallacious. For, to separate the rhetoric of political promises from the business of governance logically implies that we cannot then hold politicians accountable for their words. This is far too cynical a game to succeed in the long run. I want to suggest, instead, that words are not separate from actions. Indeed, they are one of the most potent forms of action.
 
Words constitute the foundations of our socio-political architecture. When they are undervalued, it augurs badly for the futures spelt out for us by our governing classes. In the public sphere especially, words not only encapsulate deep-seated cultural anxieties, they obligate responsible action.
 
It is in this respect that the current apologies and future promises made by Mr. Kejriwal and Mr Kumar are significant. With their gestures, the apology, coupled with the promise of honest conduct, seems to have emerged as an effective tool in domestic political discourse. Rightly or wrongly, their apologies stand in strong contrast to other positions in recent memory. In the public perception, no direct apology has been rendered by those then at the helm of affairs to the Muslim minority of Gujarat for the horrors they suffered in 2002. Nor has an official apology been offered by the Congress for the horrifying violence against the Sikhs in 1984. The list of unuttered apologies in our country, from Bhagalpur and Nandigram to the serial and serious violations of human rights in Kashmir and the North-East under various regimes, is long and scarring. What we now appear to be witnessing in the political space is a reversal of that earlier 'holding pattern'. In the present emotional landscape, the politician as a humble man of the masses, honest enough to admit his mistakes, seems to have emerged as a viable face of change.
 
The attested history of the public apology in the rest of the world has already shown how well it can sometimes showcase depth of personality and feeling, the moral authority of leadership. Nelson Mandela, for example, apologized for the excesses of the African National Congress even though their fight was for the just cause of freedom from apartheid. The complex vocabulary of 'truth and reconciliation' that South Africa has developed is not, in this sense, unrelated to its attitudes towards apologies.
 
Likewise, as far back as 1863, when Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday, he took responsibility for the huge death-toll caused in the Civil War by asking forgiveness for "our national perverseness and disobedience" to God. Centuries later, apologies and promises in the American context reveal how complex its democratic discourse has come to be. In 1998, we find Bill Clinton apologizing for American inaction during the Rwanda massacre of 1994. Ironically, this is the same year that he is impeached for perjury in the Monica Lewinsky case. As he put it at the time, "I'm having to become quite an expert in this business of asking for forgiveness."
 
Strikingly, the great neighbours, China and India, hardly ever say sorry. We may surmise this from an excellent list of world apologies put up on the Internet by Graham G. Dodds, a Universityof Pennsylvania researcher. There is just one instance of India apologizing on Dodds' list, and it is when Jawaharlal Nehru apologizes to foreign consulates in 1955 for damage caused by demonstrators. Now, such aversion to apology in the Indian case could well be because there are few formal expressions for 'I am sorry' in our languages.
 
Regret may be genuinely felt but tends not to be explicitly voiced in Indian cultural settings. It is this convention that Mr. Kejriwal and Mr. Kumar appear to have broken with, making clear the profound links between words and actions. Were they to heed further contemporary research on apologies, they would find that the present media dominated times have actually been dubbed 'the age of apology'. Yet, once in government, the evidence is that standard bureaucratic strategies for 'blame avoidance' set in (we had no information, there was outside interference, we will look into the matter).The lesson? Avoid blame avoidance, be upfront, share information. For the public may forgive their rulers' their lapses but never their subterfuges. Yeh dil maafi mange more?
 
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