Sorry, we owe you no apology

It must have been a difficult decision for the Chief Executive Officer of United Airlines, a major American airline, to apologise following outrage over alleged mistreatment of a passenger of Asian origin by airline staff. Initially, the company tried to blame the passenger, a doctor, who was forcibly evicted from his seat and dragged down the aisle by employees. Despite evidence available on video, the company maintained that the doctor was an unruly passenger. Eventually, in the face of persistent public outcry, the company’s head felt that it was better — because it was cheaper — to apologise.

In our own country, people apologise only when they feel compelled to do so by the fear that their long-term interests will be hurt. More common are half-apologies that impute part of the blame to those seeking the apology. The argument goes that had the latter not manipulated the message and misunderstood it, there would have been no need for an apology. However, even a grudgingly made apology is better than denial of an obvious blame or its cause.

Shifting the blame

A denial of reality is what happened in the recent case of attacks on young African students residing in Greater Noida, a township near the nation’s capital. An official apology would have improved our tarnished international image, but we chose to reject the charge of racism. A similar case related to that concerning a report by the National Green Tribunal detailing the ecological damage suffered by the Yamuna river due to a mega-spiritual event conducted last year. Instead of apologising or agreeing to pay a fine, the organisers questioned the environmental court’s assessment. Their argument was that if the river had been so “fragile and pure”, the authorities should not have permitted the event and, hence, the penalty should be on the concerned administrations.

Despite being a laudable — and an inexpensive — option, apology remains unpopular because it signifies weakness. In politics, an apology can elevate a leader to greatness, but few have the courage to take the risk for fear of looking weak or losing face. It is more expedient to let a dispensable head roll when a mistake comes to light. Usually, it is a civil servant on whom the responsibility can be fixed. In cases where a bureaucrat is indeed responsible for a bad decision or policy, it is pointless to exact an apology. A civil servant, on his part, doesn’t apologise and expects to be defended by colleagues and underlings.

Even academic administrators don’t like apologising. They prefer marching on, letting the young pay the price, often without being aware of it. In any case, the idea of autonomy that universities believe to be their privilege enables their administrators to ignore criticism, both from within the institution and outside.

In the world of business, apology is even more uncommon, partly because an apology does not end the matter. The head of United Airlines has apologised but the company will have to face a court case as well. May be the apology came too late. Delay dilutes the element of sincerity. However, big business organisations, especially multinationals, are a little different from the bureaucracy. They take enormous time to weigh the consequences of an apology, thereby diminishing its effectiveness.

State-corporate nexus

The state and the big business have now come closer across the world. In India, they were far apart until quite recently. In the early decades following Independence, public commentary on business houses was avoided. I recall being told by an editor to take out the name of a company I had included in an article on childhood malnutrition. That was in the early 1970s, when you were free to criticise state actors, but wary of naming a private company in public, apparently because it could give rise to a legal dispute. The media hence chose to focus on the political leadership.

Conditions have changed quite radically over the last three decades, the change having made any acknowledgement of a mistake even rarer. In the current discourse, ‘governance’ implies a lean state whose main job is to coordinate non-government actors of different kinds. They now occupy centre stage in a so-called partnership system. Two kinds of partnerships have emerged: between the state and private businesses; and between the state and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Thinner staffing and decline in the quality of public services have forced people to try private providers. When one provider doesn’t satisfy, you are expected to try another one. This new reality disperses the responsibility to serve the citizen’s needs so much that no one seems answerable.

Functional opacity

A political consensus on these changes explains why the transition to the new arrangements has been so smooth. Terms like ‘accountability’ and ‘transparency’ are now propagated as the highest values in public life, enabling transition to a new model of the state without complaints about its functional opacity. This model of a minimalist state allows a greater scope for private services, encouraging an expansion of the role of business in areas like health, education, posts and so on. Enlargement of the private sector apparently fulfills the aspirations of the relatively mobile strata among the poor.

The rich also feel freer from the constraints placed by state agencies. Thus, in education, the ‘international school market’ has grown side by side with that for non-elite private schools. As for the poorest, they are now being increasingly served by a partnership between the government and NGOs in many parts of the country. This model is more visible in regions where the proportion of the poor is high.

Against this background, we can see why an acknowledgement of mistakes concerning poor quality of service, leave alone an apology, from any empowered actor is highly unlikely. The citizen has lost his right to be served by a disinterested state. Everyone is supposedly accountable, but no one is specifically responsible. The route to redressal is longer and the expectation of an apology looks more romantic than real.

Krishna Kumar is former director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) and professor of education, Delhi University

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