I had no doubt it was a clever question, but I didn’t immediately realise how well-considered it was. It’s even possible that it ended up revealing more than I intended. However, let me not jump the gun.
“What’s the one quality you admire most?” I assumed this was a routine query by a young interviewer writing an article for his school magazine, but hearing the follow up I corrected myself. "I’m not talking about political talent and language skills. I want to know about qualities of the heart or mind that determine a person’s character."
For a moment I floundered. This was not an area I expected to be asked about. More pertinently, I’d never thought about it. But before I could say that, or try to waffle and filibuster, the answer popped into my head.
“I admire people who can accept their own mistakes. Not just a quiet sorry but a public acceptance of getting it wrong.” No sooner had I said this than I knew I meant it. It may have been unpremeditated but it was, I felt sure, the truth.
Unfortunately, my interlocutor didn’t ask for examples to illustrate my point. If he had I would have added a small but necessary qualification. Saying sorry is never easy but it becomes increasingly difficult the more important you are. Indeed, it’s even harder when the person to whom you owe the apology is comparatively insignificant. Big men accepting their mistakes to the small is not just unusual, it’s extremely rare. Think of how often someone apologises to a servant or an office peon. If they do, it’s said cursorily, almost matter-of-factly, without atonement leave aside admission of guilt.
This is why Colonel Kirori Singh Bhainsla, the Gujjar leader, is so special. In an interview last week, I spoke to him about his agitation which paralysed Rajasthan. Even if you disagree with his views, his commitment and passion shine through. His is a fight for justice and he’s determined to get it.
“Why” I asked, “did you tell the press just before meeting Vasundhara Raje Scindia that even if she rejects your demands you would call off the struggle?” Other than signal he lacked the stomach for a fight, I could think of no fitting explanation.
“It was a slip of the tongue,” the Colonel replied unhesitatingly. "A mistake."
“And you have no compunction admitting it?” I shot back, surprised by his candour.
“Why should I? We all make mistakes. I’m no different. And this was a mistake.” His short sentences seemed to emphasise his sincerity. There was no long-winded explaining away, no sophistry, no rhetoric. In the simplest, most straightforward manner, the Colonel was admitting an error.
“Won’t your colleagues hold this against you?”
“Too bad if they do,” he said, smiling broadly. “But I still can’t deny it was a mistake.”
I can think of one other similar example. In February 1998, during the election of that year, I interviewed L K Advani about the manner in which he was trying to change the BJP’s image. Adopting a tone of skepticism, I reeled off a series of facts and concluded by claiming “aapne rakshas ke seengh ukadh ke uske moonh pe muskrahat dal di he”. Minutes later, when we paused for the commercial break, Advani called off the interview. He removed the mike and got up. In fact he almost walked out of the room.
I don’t know what stopped him but, equally suddenly, he changed his mind. Of course, I pleaded with him but I don’t think my entreaties were so powerful. Something inside must have prompted the reconsideration. Silently he sat down and we re-started.
After it was over Mr Advani apologised. I don’t recall his words but I do remember that he spoke quietly. The impact was even greater.
He said he was sorry for his outburst and then turned to the crew and apologised to them as well. He explained he was upset at being called a rakshas but added he had no right to behave the way he had. His honesty was not just disarming, it left all of us speechless.
Would I, in similar circumstances, behave like Advani and Bhainsla? Am I capable of accepting a mistake? Do I have the courage to do it publicly? Mercifully my young interviewer didn’t go so far. If he had, I’m not sure what I would have said. Alas, I suspect the answer might have to be ‘no’.