It’s not every day that a Prime Minister picks up a telephone and apologises to someone. So when Manmohan Singh called up noted Pakistani human rights activist Asma Jahangir to apologise for the ‘inconvenience’ caused to her on Monday when police personnel checked her baggage in her hotel room, there was much surprise all around. To be fair, the police were conducting routine pre-Independence Day check-ups in the ‘usual’ guesthouses, one of which happened to be where Ms Jahangir was staying during her visit to India. So, despite what conspiracy theorists may have been thinking, the Pakistani visitor was not ‘targeted’ in anyway. But there have been subsequent murmurs in Delhi’s frockcoated fraternity whether the Prime Minister did the ‘proper’ thing. After all, if there was nothing overtly untoward that took place, why apologise? And why the Prime Minister? To which we can only say two things: what’s the machismo in not saying sorry for an inconvenience meted out to an important visitor? And why not the Prime Minister?
Indians, whether one harrumphs or not, are Brahmanical about protocol and hierarchy to the point of tiresomeness. If the officialese of ‘yours humbly’ and ‘I beg to obtain’ doesn’t give the game away, the whole business of accessibility of our VIPs confirms the fact that our stuffiness didn’t go out with the bandgala. We still find it astounding when foreign Heads of State crack jokes at press conferences or when an ill-informed colleague doesn’t refer to the Boss as ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’. On a larger scale, this is a nation that is shocked out of its wits to find that a bunch of youngsters had the gall to drive their car up to the Prime Minister’s residential compound. Chhi!
The latest episode of the PM calling someone he knew to say sorry should, in fact, make us think about breaking free from the self-imposed tyranny of über-protocol. Manmohan Singh may not have the imperial pride of a Queen Victoria that a lot of us want him to possess, but that’s a healthy reflection of his civilness that civil society could do well to replicate. One doesn’t expect him to, say, give an impromptu back-rub to Pervez Musharraf (as US President George Bush recently did to German Chancellor Angela Merkel). But for the nation’s leader to act according to common and civil sense can only lead to the country loosening up a bit. Which, we beg to state, it needs to.