To say sorry or not: The different shades of apology politics in India

  • Prashant Jha, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jul 18, 2016 19:27 IST
AAP leader and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal visits the Golden Temple in Amritsar. (Gurpreet Singh/ HT Photo). (Gurpreet Singh/ HT Photo)

Arvind Kejriwal on Monday morning washed utensils at the Golden Temple community kitchen for 45 minutes offering sewa (voluntary service) -- his apology for hurting Sikh sentiments.

His Aam Aadmi Party had equated its youth manifesto with the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book. On the cover of the manifesto booklet, a picture of the party symbol, a broom, was printed along with that of the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh shrine, causing offence.

AAP’s prospects look good as Punjab gears up for elections in 2017. The Delhi chief minister clearly realised that the party’s actions would give ammunition to rivals to paint him as an outsider, insensitive to religious sentiments of the Sikh. A non-Sikh himself, Kejriwal cannot afford to take that risk in the only Sikh majority state in the country. He took the initiative and reached out, all humble, to those hurt.

The apology may have been genuine. But, it also made political and tactical sense. Indian politics has seen both its share of apologies, albeit rare, and a firm refusal to apologise -- especially in cases of mass killings.

Read: Kejriwal says sorry for manifesto goof-up, performs ‘sewa’ at Golden Temple

Apology accepted

Kejriwal may have been motivated to apologise because of his past success with the tactic.

Remember he quit as the Delhi chief minister within 49 days in early 2014, and ambitiously expanded to fight the Lok Sabha elections. The party faced a rout. He lost the Varanasi seat to Narendra Modi.

As Delhi geared up for snap polls, Kejriwal realised the folly of his over-reach. The IIT-trained mechanical engineer told voters he made a mistake by resigning, and if voted back with a majority, he would complete his term. Apology accepted. Delhi voters returned him with an unprecedented 67 seats in a 70-member house.

The Bihar half-apology

Take the case of another political leader. Nitish Kumar apologised for one decision and stuck to another in the run-up to the 2015 Bihar elections.

Kumar broke off the alliance with the BJP when the senior partner declared Modi its prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 national elections. His government survived, but in the Lok Sabha elections, Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) was humiliated.

Till a few days before the results came in, the Bihar leader had maintained the Modi factor was a “media hype”. The results came as a shock to him. He decided to take personal responsibility – for, he had decided to snap the ties though most of his colleagues were happy to go with the BJP.

Kumar then nominated a Dalit minister, Jitan Ram Manjhi, as the chief minister. But within eight months, he decided to throw Manjhi out and take back control, causing instability in the politically vital eastern state.

After a solid, stable performance for almost a decade, Kumar was being seen as temperamental. Why did he leave BJP? Why did he appoint Manjhi? And if he did, why did he remove a Dalit CM?

Kumar did a Kejriwal – he admitted he had made a mistake by resigning and appointing Manjhi as the chief minister. In interviews to the media and rallies across the state, he pre-empted the criticism by saying he should have stayed on after the 2014 loss.

This was smart politics -- it kept his party’s Dalit base intact. But, he refused to apologise for breaking up with the BJP. The decision, he said, stemmed from his conviction in secularism. The move made political sense. Muslims continued to see in him a leader who would take on Modi.

Read: In pics: Kejriwal prays at Golden Temple, apologises for ‘mistakes’

The 1984 apology

The political class has reacted differently to riots -- an apology in the case of one and a firm refusal to admitting any wrong-doing in the other.

It was on the Congress’s watch in 1984 that Sikhs were massacred on Delhi’s streets in the aftermath of prime minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination. There was a degree of political complicity, as documented by multiple fact-finding reports. Rajiv Gandhi’s instinctive reaction was: “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes.”

It took the Congress over two decades to admit sins of omission and commission. In 2004, when Sonia Gandhi nominated a Sikh, Manmohan Singh, as the prime minister, it was an acknowledgment of the wrong done to the community. But Singh’s most categorical statement in Parliament was the first clear instance of a top Indian political leader -- in this case a symbol of both the Indian state and the Congress party -- owning up to mistakes that had led to a mass killing.

He said, “I have no hesitation in apologising to the Sikh community. I apologise not only to the Sikh community, but to the whole Indian nation because what took place in 1984 was a negation of the concept of nationhood enshrined in our Constitution.”

The power of Singh’s apology, however, was somewhat diluted by Rahul Gandhi’s refusal, in an interview to Times Now before the 2014 elections, to personally offer regret for the riots.

He took refuge in his age. The Congress leaders said he was a child and while what had happened was wrong and some Congressmen may have been involved, the government had done everything to stop the killings.

When asked if he would apologise, Gandhi said he was not involved in the riots; it was not that he was a part of it; and he was ‘not in operation’ in the Congress then.

The 2002 refusal

In the saga of non-apologies, 2002 would mark a milestone.

After the Gujarat riots, chief minister Narendra Modi’s reaction eerily echoed that of Rajiv Gandhi, when he said any action elicits a reaction. Ever since, the opposition and activists have consistently asked of him to apologise for what they allege was state complicity in the anti-Muslim violence.

Modi has been steadfast in his refusal. If he was wrong, he should be punished and not forgiven – was his response. In an interview to the Wall Street Journal in 2012, he explained, “One only has to ask for forgiveness if one is guilty of a crime. If you think it is such a big crime, why should the culprit be forgiven...I think Modi should get the biggest punishment possible if he is guilty.”

Indian politicians, like politicians elsewhere, deploy a range of tools to win over voters -- emotion, anger, fear and reason. An apology is yet another tool in the arsenal. Who deploys it, and when, depends as much on the nature of the politician as the circumstances and calculations over potential benefits.

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