Maya, Modi and the art of the unapologetic apology

Mayawati made good on her threat to “go to any extent” over the issue of passing a constitutional amendment to give quotas to SC/ST staff in government promotions. Yesterday, she attacked Rajya Sabha Chairman Hamid Ansari verbally, jumping into the well of the house and accusing him of running the house poorly.

"You are not seen here after 12 pm... What kind of House is this? You have to decide what has to be done on this," she said. When Ansari pleaded with her to let the House continue, The Economic Times quoted her as fuming: “I am not ready to listen to anything. We have seen in the last few days that every day the House is not allowed to function after 12 pm. It is your responsibility to ensure that it functions. Who will ensure that it functions?”

But today, all is forgiven, almost forgotten. After the Prime Ministers and the Leader of the Opposition dished out emollient words, the Lady herself deigned to half-apologise to Ansari: “I respect you. I respect the Chair…I have full faith in the Chair that he will find a way to get the voice of the downtrodden heard,” Mayawati told the Rajya Sabha.

This is the Indian way where everything can be put behind with a seeming apology. You can create mayhem, and abuse anybody, or even resort to violence, but if you even hint that you have thought about an apology, everything must be forgotten, forgiven.

 Maya, Modi and the art of the unapologetic apology

“I respect you. I respect the Chair…I have full faith in the Chair that he will find a way to get the voice of the downtrodden heard,” Mayawati told the Rajya Sabha. PTI

Actually, there are three or more Indian techniques for apology, half-apology or non-apology, and all of them are less about the apology and more about forgetting, if not forgiving.

Here are some illustrated examples from our four M’s – Mayawati, Manmohan, Mulayam, and Modi,

Let’s start with the Mayawati technique elaborated above. It’s about saying nice things about the wronged person and then demanding that you be forgiven. This is the real meaning of Mayawati adding a caveat to the apology. When she says “I have full faith in the Chair that he will find a way to get the voice of the downtrodden heard,” her emphasis is really on the second half of the sentence and it shrieks loudly: get my work (on quotas) done, and you would have deserved my apology. Or else…

The second technique is the full-apology and this is offered when it will cost you. Shekhar Gupta writes in The Indian Express of a threat made by Mulayam Singh Yadav over the phone. Apparently, an Express columnist (Tavleen Singh, to be precise) was nosing around in Uttar Pradesh looking at the death of Mulayam's relative for a story. The UP strongman called Gupta to warn him that if she writes anything mischievous, she might meet bodily harm (broken legs). To which Gupta replied that if anything happened to her, Mulayam Singh would be responsible. The latter apparently thought about it for a while and called back to apologise. No point antagonising the press. The apology was accepted. The threat to injure a columnist has now become an anecdote to show what a great guy Mulayam Singh is.

A variant of the second full apology is the one offered by Manmohan Singh on the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. Here the apology sounds real and sincere, but it is offered on behalf of someone else. It is also forced by events.

Manmohan Singh’s 2005 apology for the anti-Sikh riots — in which Congress goons killed more than 3,000 Sikhs in Delhi and elsewhere after Indira Gandhi’s assassination — was applauded by the world of a great example of official contrition. But what did Singh actually say on 11 August 2005 in Parliament that sounded so sincere?

Here are some of his key sentences and phrases.

While calling the assassination of Indira Gandhi a “great national tragedy”, he added, “'what happened subsequently was equally shameful.” (Note: What happened cannot apparently be mentioned clearly. And the killing of 3,000-and-odd Sikhs was just “equally shameful” as the killing of the PM.)

Singh’s apology came after the GT Nanavati Commission named several Congress leaders as complicit in the killings, and it seemed as if BJP and Akali politicians will make political capital out of it to put Congress on the mat. So 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 is the negation of the concept of nationhood enshrined in our Constitution.”

But why did Singh apologise for something done by Rajiv Gandhi’s government, of which he wasn’t even a part? Was there any apology from the Gandhi family, since it was Rajiv Gandhi who justified the violence claiming that when a big tree falls, the earth shakes. And during the post-assassination election campaign, Rajiv Gandhi used anti-Sikh sentiment to harvest Hindu votes — in worse ways than what Narendra Modi did after Godhra in 2002.

The upshot of this apology? The nation lost its appetite in demanding justice for Sikhs killed in 1984.

Which brings us to 1989, 2002 and 2007 — the Bhagalpur, Gujarat and Nandigram massacres. Many NGOs and politicians keep harping on the fact that no apology has been offered by Modi. The man himself said in an interview he had nothing to apologise for. He told his TV interviewer, who had asked him why he could not apologise like Manmohan for the 2002 riots, this: “There is no question of apologising because if I have committed this crime, then I should not be forgiven, I should be hanged. And I should be hanged in such a way that people should learn a lesson for 100 years that nothing like this should happen.”

But Modi himself did offer a variant of the Manmohan Singh apology, complete with references to the Constitution, when he started his Sadhbhavna campaign in September 2011. He had said then: “Constitution of India is supreme for us. As a chief minister of the state, pain of anybody is my pain. Justice to everyone is the duty of the state.”

He added, for good measure: “Innocent people were killed, atmosphere was tense and emotions were running high. The wounds were deep and people said that Gujarat cannot develop now. But people have forgotten the past and development is now the mantra.”.

Was that an apology? And has it worked?

Whether it is Gujarat, or Bhagalpur (riots in 1989 left as many dead as in Gujarat) or Nandigram (during Left Front rule in West Bengal in 2007), the lack of apology works well enough over the long term.

So this is the third way — the non-apology technique, which begins to work as people forget, or when old excesses are overwritten by new ones.

What we need to ask ourselves is this: what is the value of an apology that is not real? Can apologies be given as a tradeoff for favour or instead of justice?

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Updated Date: Dec 13, 2012 18:02:36 IST