Sorry seems to be the hardest word: Can our political discourse handle public apology? - Hindustan Times
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Sorry seems to be the hardest word: Can our political discourse handle public apology?

Apr 17, 2024 09:21 PM IST

As HD Kumaraswamy proved, apologies occupy complex moral positions. An apology should accept responsibility and acknowledge one's role in causing distress

On Saturday, April 13, Janata Dal (Secular) leader and former Karnataka chief minister HD Kumaraswamy was campaigning for BJP Tumkur Lok Sabha candidate V Somanna in Turuvekere, when he said, “People should listen to these few words carefully. This government announced five guarantees for elections last year, (after which) my mothers in villages have gone a little astray...”

Kumaraswamy’s apology is a classic case of how not to apologise (ANI)(HT_PRINT) PREMIUM
Kumaraswamy’s apology is a classic case of how not to apologise (ANI)(HT_PRINT)

The backlash was swift — the Congress in Karnataka accused him of demeaning women with his derogatory remarks, and in Mandya, where Kumaraswamy is contesting as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, the Mahila Congress staged a protest.

On Monday, the 64-year-old politician held a press conference to issue an apology.

“I apologise to all women… If my words have hurt any women, then I am ready to apologise,” he said, indicating that his words and the impact they had were two separate things. He then went on to clarify that he did not, in fact, insult any woman or use any words to hurt them. “They (Congress) have depicted it as if I have committed a grave mistake,” he said.

Kumaraswamy’s apology is a classic case of how not to apologise. The burden of proof is placed squarely on the women who might have been offended, and not on what he said. With this offering, Kumaraswamy has contributed to the Great Indian Political (Non) Apology that works on a simple premise — ‘It’s Not Me, It Might Be You.’

In their 2020 article, The Pragmatics of Indian Political Apologies: Sorry, but not sorry (published in Discourse & Society, Sage) scholars Sangeeta Shukla and Rajita Shukla note that the earliest record of a public apology issued by a head of state in the Indian subcontinent is courtesy Ashoka’s rock edicts, number 13 in particular.

Inscribed on it are words expressing regret for the violence that took place during the brutal Kalinga War (circa 260 BCE), though it is unclear if the emperor is apologising for his actions or their consequence. But it would be many, many centuries before the public apology would enter the modern Indian political landscape. Shukla and Shukla write that the main reason for its prolonged absence appears to be cultural — in India, an apology is perceived to be an admission of guilt as opposed to an act that may express contrition and set the tone for reparative measures.

What are you sorry for?

Apologies occupy complex moral positions, their efficacy determined by their ability to strike an emotional chord in those it is directed towards; at its root, an apology is not a plea for forgiveness, it is closer to accepting responsibility and acknowledging one’s role in causing harm or distress.

In global politics, a public apology is nothing short of a performance that can boost or ruin a politician’s career. No other country does it better than the United States of America, where an entire industry of spin doctors, crisis management firms and publicists has mushroomed to tackle this issue.

One of the most memorable apologies came from former President Bill Clinton in 1998, on the heels of his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky: “I don’t think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned…But I believe that to be forgiven, more than sorrow is required. At least two more things: First, genuine repentance, a determination to change and to repair breaches of my own making…Second, what my Bible calls a broken spirit. An understanding that I must have God’s help to be the person that I want to be. A willingness to give the very forgiveness I seek.” This was from a breakfast speech, which marked the end of an evolving series of apologies that took place between August 17 and September 11, 1998 — a long-winded road Clinton set himself on because he had fervently denied the affair for many weeks.

The British, on the other hand, prefer to be succinct when tasked with delivering a (rare) apology. In 1997, brevity and accountability were key when Tony Blair apologised to the Irish people on the 150th anniversary of the Irish Potato Famine (1845-1852), a time when Ireland was under English rule: “Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy.”

When heads of state express regret

At home, political apologies have been few and far between.

Post-Independence, the first significant political apology came from Indira Gandhi in 1978, when she publicly owned up to the mistakes and excesses committed during the Emergency at a gathering in Yavatmal, Maharashtra. But the apology came with a caveat: Gandhi reminded her audience that the Emergency was a response to the chaos that had engulfed the country in 1975, an unprecedented situation that required extraordinary methods.

Years later, in August 2005, Dr Manmohan Singh would apologise for the anti-Sikh riots that broke out when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in October 1984. Speaking in the Rajya Sabha, Dr Singh said, “I have no hesitation in apologising to not only the Sikh community but also to the nation. I bow my head in shame that such a thing happened.” This apology was echoed by Rahul Gandhi when his Bharat Jodo Yatra reached Punjab last year.

In a country where apologies are considered a sign of weakness, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has tread with caution; only two notable occasions stand out. First, in 1992, when the party leader and former Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, apologised during an interview with Prannoy Roy of NDTV, for the demolition of the Babri Masjid, saying “We tried to prevent it, but we could not succeed…We are sorry for that.”

Since taking power in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government have focussed on a show of strength even through events such as demonetisation in 2016, the 2017 Gorakhpur hospital deaths, the oxygen crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic in the summer of 2021; the focus is on controlling the narrative of such events by calling them “anti-corruption” initiatives, “a natural calamity” respectively, and by putting a “positivity strategy” in place to combat criticism of the government.

In the past decade, PM Modi has issued only one public apology. In November 2021, when the BJP-led government decided to repeal the three farm laws after a year of protests by farmers in the national capital region, he apologised to the Indian public in a televised address, saying, “Today, while apologising to the countrymen, I want to say with a sincere and pure heart that perhaps there must have been some deficiency in our efforts, due to which we could not explain the truth like the light of the lamp to some farmers…Whatever I did, I did for farmers. What I am doing is for the country. With your blessings, I never left out anything in my hard work. Today I assure you that I will now work even harder, so that your dreams, the nation’s dreams, can be realised.”

Do we know how to receive an apology?

It could be years before the public apology becomes part of the Indian political landscape, for the cultural response to apologies is a mixed bag. On the one hand, people and parties are constantly charging at each other to acknowledge wrongdoing or hurtful words. On the other hand, data published in Pew Research Center’s Spring 2023 Global Attitudes Survey, tells us a different story: 85% of Indians said that military rule or rule by an authoritarian leader would be good for the country, the highest among the 24 countries surveyed. The report also noted that the number of Indians who believed that representative democracy is a good way of governance has declined considerably from 2017, the last time this survey was conducted and that a very high share of Indians wanted experts to rule instead of elected officials. This shift in outlook indicates a certain shedding of responsibility on the part of the public — if large sections of the population put their unexamined faith in a single party, a political leader, or experts, and decide to be led by them without holding them accountable for their mistakes, it impacts the democratic spirit of any country.

Lastly, and more damningly, the number of Indians who agreed that it is important for the Opposition parties to operate freely is the third lowest among the countries surveyed. If the citizens strongly support a move for the opposition’s criticism to be removed from the political discourse or stifled, and if dissent is to be crushed, then the people are willingly agreeing to an authoritarian government. In this political climate, what good is the public apology, if there is no need for it?

The views expressed are personal

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