The bruising politics of the Gujarat election has spilled over into Parliament in Delhi. Ironically, the fracas is over an apology, universally regarded as a precondition essential for healing and reconciliation. Instead, the politics of apology playing out in Delhi will intensify the hurt and foretells a grim future.
The Congress wants an apology from Prime Minister Narendra Modi for casting doubts on the patriotism of his predecessor, Manmohan Singh. Modi is said to have done this by describing a dinner hosted by suspended Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar for a former Pakistani foreign minister, at which Singh was present, as a “secret meeting”. At several rallies in Gujarat in the run-up to the Assembly elections that concluded on Monday with a BJP victory, Modi used the routine social event to hint at a Congress-Muslim-Pakistan conspiracy to influence the state’s voters.
In the Congress’s telling of the story, it is the hurt of Singh that has been highlighted. This is because of the prestige he enjoys. Singh, too, says that Modi has cast aspersions on him. He issued a statement on December 11 saying, “I am deeply pained and anguished by the falsehood and canards being spread to score political points…”
But Singh did not seek an apology for himself. He wanted Modi to apologise for demeaning the post he holds. Singh said, “I sincerely hope that he will apologise to the nation for his ill-thought transgression to restore the dignity of the office he occupies.”
In the Bharatiya Janata Party’s telling of the story, Modi has done no wrong to those who claim to have been hurt. In fact, it is they who owe the nation an explanation. On December 11, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley called Aiyar’s dinner a “misadventure” that is worrisome, given the fraught relationship between India and Pakistan. “To expect the prime minister of India to apologise… for having flagged that issue [Aiyar’s dinner] is indeed beyond comprehension,” Jaitley said.
It is very unlikely the BJP will retreat from its position. This is because an apology has several meanings to it. In their paper, Government Apologies for Historical Injustices, Craig W Blatz, Karina Schumann and Michael Ross of the University of Waterloo deconstruct the act of apology into six distrinct but complementary elements.
These six elements are: remorse (example, “I am sorry”), acceptance of responsibility (“It is my fault”), admission of injustice or wrongdoing (“What I did was wrong”), acknowledgement of harm and/or victim suffering (“I know you are upset”), forbearance, or promises to behave better in the future (“I will never do it again”), and offers of repair (“I will pay for the damages”).
All the elements, barring the sixth (offers of repair), are at play, in reverse, in the politics of apology that the Congress and the BJP are engaged in.
Remorse and responsibility
For Modi to say “I am sorry” is to express regret for his speeches in which he demonstrated suspicion of Singh’s patriotism. It is to also accept that he is at fault. Such an apology from Modi would peel away the ambiguous meanings in which he shrounds his speeches. His dog whistles could not then be misconstrued as inadvertent. His innuendoes would become incontrovertible evidence of his attempt to deliberately resort to calumny against Singh.
Of course, Modi could take the high moral ground by tendering an apology, couching it in language he deems appropriate, and ensure that Parliament functions smoothly. But he will baulk against saying sorry because it will bring into question the means he employed to win the Gujarat elections. It would take away the sheen from his party’s victory. It would belie the claim that Modi’s development agenda won the approval of Gujaratis.
Those who argue that Modi is not at fault requires buy into the notion that it is wrong for an Indian to host a dinner for a Pakistani, or even to attend such an event. From this perspective, Modi did no wrong in voicing his suspicion of Singh. It is the former prime minister who besmirched his reputation because of his own error of judgement in attending Aiyar’s dinner.
Admission and acknowledgement
For Modi to accept he is at fault is to also confess that he wronged Singh. It is to acknowledge both the credibility of Singh’s dismay. This is contrary to the position the BJP has taken – that the former prime minister should not have broken bread with a Pakistani and has no reason to feel upset.
Admitting to a wrong has a moral dimension. An apology from Modi would imply that he no longer thinks it is anti-national to hold a dinner for a Pakistani or to attend it. This would indict the very core of Modi’s past politics as well as of Hindutva.
The election campaign in Gujarat was not the first instance of Modi employing the trope of Pakistan and by extension of Muslims to garner votes for the BJP. He did it during elections in the state in 2002 and 2007 as well. Before the Assembly elections in Bihar in 2015, BJP president Amit Shah said a defeat for his party would lead to celebrations in Pakistan.
An apology from Modi would also undermine his dog-whistle politics, a tactic he has used against others before Singh. For instance, before the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections this year, he hinted that Akhilesh Yadav as chief minister had provided 24-hour electricity supply on Eid but not on Diwali, that he had made improvements to qabristans (graveyards) in the state but not shamshan ghats (cremation grounds). It was Modi’s attempt to allege to the Uttar Pradesh electorate that Yadav favoured Muslims over Hindus.
No, not again
Blatz, Schumann and Ross say the act of apology tacitly implies a promise to never repeat the transgression for which regret has been expressed. This is the most important reason why Modi will not say apologise to Singh. To do so would forestall his ability to blow the dog-whistle in future campaigns.
An apology would also require Modi and the BJP to abandon the politics of polarisation, to stop using language that is hurtful and which is laden with suspicion of the patriotism of rivals and religious minorities. But these elements constitute the very basis of Hindutva, which is the core of the BJP’s ideology. Modi cannot apologise to Singh because it means declaring Hindutva and his own style of politics unethical.