It is rare in Indian politics to see a politician show humility in public, leave alone apologise. Everyone understands that a politician, particularly in the visual age, must always project righteous confidence. Apology is seen as an admission of one’s failings, humility a sign of weakness.
Yet, there are times when a politician could do with admitting mistakes, showing humility, and even apologising. One such instance was the 2015 Delhi assembly election when Arvind Kejriwal repeatedly apologised for having resigned from his first stint as Delhi chief minister after just 49 days.
It was obvious that Kejriwal had resigned with bad excuses, just so that he and the Aam Aadmi Party could concentrate on the bigger prize, the Lok Sabha elections. This had earned him the moniker of ‘bhagoda’ or a runaway. How were the people of Delhi expected to trust such a man again with the same chief minister’s chair? Kejriwal apologised and ran a campaign promising he will serve a full five years this time — “Paanch Saal Kejriwal”. As it happened, the people of Delhi gave him a historic 67 out of 70 seats.
Indira Gandhi had a similar experience in 1980. After badly losing an election over the Emergency in 1977, she repeatedly expressed regret and apologised for the “excesses” of the Emergency, even as she defended the need to impose the Emergency. She also showed humility by taking to the masses — taking an elephant to reach a Dalit basti that had seen a massacre, for example. Similarly, it has helped the Congress in Punjab that Manmohan Singh apologised for the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom.
Public display of humility
Rahul Gandhi recently did a video chat with Raghuram Rajan, where he asked the economist questions about the Indian economy. This is odd, because we usually see politicians answering questions.
T.N. Ninan has echoed many on social media by saying that this makes Rahul Gandhi look like a leader without a vision of his own. A leader is by definition supposed to have the answers to people’s problems.
That is true for most leaders. But Rahul Gandhi’s credibility is so low that no one is impressed with the solutions he offers. Just a year ago, the people of India rejected his leadership so strongly that Rahul Gandhi lost even his own seat of Amethi. In his 16 years in politics, Rahul Gandhi has very little to show for himself. He has never held any governance or administrative post so that we can judge his abilities. And to the extent we can judge his abilities as a politician, he appears incompetent and callous. He can’t even get the better of the Congress’ old guard, and goes abroad so often we can’t tell whether he’s in India on a given day or not.
For a leader with such an image, if he stands up and says, “I know how to solve India’s economic crisis,” it has no credibility. The problem is not that the message is poor, but that the messenger has no credibility. For example, Rahul Gandhi may have been early in pointing out the gravity of Covid-19, and yet Narendra Modi has sky-high ratings in his handling of the crisis.
For Rahul Gandhi to be taken seriously, he needs to do some PDH — Public Display of Humility. Being seen asking Raghuram Rajan questions won’t make Rahul Gandhi a leader, but to get to the point where he can be seen as fit to lead the masses, he first needs to show the humility of someone willing to learn.
‘I stood completely alone’
To see how Rahul Gandhi is completely lacking in humility, it is important to recall his response to the Congress party’s big election defeats in 2014 and 2019.
In 2014, Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi addressed the media. Rahul spoke first, then Sonia. Rahul was seen smiling ear to ear, looking happy as though the Congress had won a majority. Why he looked so happy, one is yet to figure out. Rahul Gandhi spoke a few sentences in English, including, “As vice-president of the party, I hold myself responsible for what has happened.”
Then Sonia Gandhi spoke, reading out text in Hindi, solemnly, immediately making her son’s quick words in English look casual. Sonia Gandhi’s tone and words both conveyed humility: she said the Congress party obeyed the decision of the people with humility. While congratulating the new government, she expressed hope that it would not compromise with India’s unity or national interest. “I am the president of the party, so I accept the responsibility for the defeat,” she said.
As Sonia Gandhi spoke, Rahul stood next to her, cheerful and smiling, fidgety and casual, making faces and gesturing to individuals in the audience. It was as if he was posing for the cameras after winning an award, completely marring a sombre moment Sonia Gandhi knew how to observe.
Cut to May 2019, five years later. Rahul Gandhi was party president. Sonia Gandhi had gone into semi-retirement. He faced the press alone, party communication chief Randeep Surjewala by his side. Rahul Gandhi did not look ecstatic this time, but he did not come across as sombre either.
Neither his tone nor his words carried the humility of someone accepting defeat. His tone was that of someone who had been vindicated. “I had said in my campaign that janta is malik (the people are owners),” he said.
He did not even say the customary words about accepting his responsibility in his opening remarks. It was only when a journalist asked if he accepted responsibility that he was forced to say: “cent per cent”. If the journalist had not asked the question, Rahul Gandhi would have been able to get away without even this tokenism.
Soon thereafter, Rahul Gandhi insisted he wanted to resign from the post of party president. He let it be known he was doing so because he felt the party’s top leaders had let him down in the campaign.
It took him over two months to put out a 2-page open letter (in English). This letter said he was resigning to take responsibility. But, with that obligatory sentence out, he proceeded to take the moral high ground, talking at length about how he has been fighting the BJP’s idea of India. At one point, he wrote in an apparent reference to his party’s old guard, “At times, I stood completely alone and am extremely proud of it.”
Nothing about his tone, body language, or words suggests Rahul Gandhi genuinely accepts responsibility for the 2019 defeat.
The world has let Rahul down
In Rahul Gandhi’s self-assessment, he is the innocent guy wronged by everyone: by his party seniors, the BJP, the media, and even the liberal intelligentsia.
In his perception, he has not been doing anything wrong: his gaffes; his endless foreign trips; his wrong assessment that ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’ was working; the last-minute NYAY campaign; his inability to form meaningful alliances; his failure to carry forward momentum from the Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh election victories; his failure to put up a coherent campaign on unemployment.
If Rahul Gandhi has to attempt the impossible task of rising like a phoenix from the ashes, he must first have the ability to put aside his ego and admit his mistakes and failures, and have the humility of a learner.
Instead, very little changed in his ways since May 2019. The list of Rahul Gandhi’s political errors he refuses to correct is a long one. Just three examples:
1) His obsessive international travel: he was in Seoul when India was erupting against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.
2) His ability to miss the moment: It took him about 10 days to visit riot-hit areas in Delhi in February.
3) His negative campaign: it took a pandemic to make him understand the value of playing constructive opposition.
The more Rahul Gandhi fails, the more he refuses to change. Why should he change when he doesn’t think he’s wrong at all. It’s the world that is wrong and will correct itself one day and admit Rahul Gandhi was right.
The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.