Nine days after 23 school children died and another 24 were hospitalised after eating a school lunch contaminated with pesticide, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar finally decided to speak up.
It was not to express regret that such an awful thing could have happened in the state he runs. It was not even to grab a hospital photo-op with the survivors. In fact, Nitish had not gone to the Patna hospital eight km away from his home, let alone make the 96-km journey to the school where the tragedy had taken place. Apparently a hairline fracture on the little toe of his left foot had prevented the journey.
So when Nitish finally decided to break his silence this is what he said: “The presence of high level of pesticide in the mid-day meal…[was] a conspiracy.”
It doesn’t matter whether it’s a natural disaster or a man-made tragedy, Indian politicians are particularly sloppy when it comes to reaching out. The most basic human act of one person telling another ‘I feel your pain,’ seems singularly absent in the landscape of Indian political-speak across parties and ideology.
Why single out Nitish? Narendra Modi has resolutely refused to express regret over the killing of nearly 2,000 innocents, mainly Muslim, in riots during his watch in Gujarat in 2002 though he recently clarified to Reuters that he would feel bad even if a puppy came under the wheel of his car.
It took 21 years before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh finally conceded in August 2005 that the killing of nearly 3,000 Sikhs in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination was ‘shameful’. Has anybody in the Congress ever repudiated Rajiv Gandhi’s comment comparing the anti-Sikh pogrom with an earth that shakes when a mighty tree falls? And it took a thrown shoe by a frustrated Sikh journalist to have Congress leader Jagdish Tytler’s ticket cancelled.
When retractions take place they are so limp they convince nobody. Last week Congress leaders and their pals declared that it is possible to eat a meal for Rs. 12 (Raj Babbar), Rs. 5 (Rasheed Masood) and even Rs. 1 (Farooq Abdullah) betraying not just insensitivity but a disconnect from on-the-ground reality. Clearly, these men aren’t concerned with the nitty gritty of household budgets. Ivory towers exposed, they quickly retreated after the Congress distanced itself from their ridiculous statements.
We’ve come a long way from the time when a railway minister would resign following a train accident simply because it happened on his watch. Mahatma Gandhi called off his non-violence movement after the carnage at Chauri Chaura because for him it was imperative not to lose the moral compass.
Today, politicians are not ‘public servants’ but the ruling elite, committed to building constituencies, party brands, winning elections, fund-collection. Public service is perhaps secondary to many. Perhaps that is why an expression of regret comes so hard to them.
Perhaps they believe they are infallible. Perhaps they fear that an apology will be an admission of guilt, used by their political opponents to beat them with. Or perhaps the mountain of outrageous competing statements by politicians is now so high that apologies have just become redundant.
Communication is the heart of politics and an apology is one of the most profound human interactions. It has the power to heal, free the mind from guilt, remove the desire for vengeance and ultimately restore broken relationships writes professor of psychiatry and author Aaron Lazare.
When people in authority refuse to apologise they are simply saying: we don’t care because we know you will not hold us accountable, you don’t matter and what the hell are you going to do about it anyway? In contrast, when Barack Obama reaches out to devastated citizens in Sandy Hook following a mass shooting, he does it from the heart (or at the very least with the help of a damn good speechwriter).
Plump with arrogance, cocooned within power circles and disconnected from reality, how many of our politicians can claim to do that?
The views expressed by the author are personal