Why don’t Indians say mea culpa?

Why don’t Indians say mea culpa?

Mea culpa is an interesting phrase. Its Latin origins allude to sin, but in common practice, it is used to accept a mistake, one that could have been avoided. Mea culpa is a way of saying, “I messed up", or, as Barack Obama told several news channels in the wake of the failed Daschle nomination, “I screwed up."

If it works for the US President, why not for us?

Not everyone can use this phrase. A. Raja, for instance, cannot. The scale of his transgression and the fact that it was done in a callous, premeditated fashion, does not a mistake make. Even if Raja says “Mea maxima culpa," as the Confiteor prayer in the Mass of the Roman Catholic church did, his actions cannot be excused. The same applies to Suresh Kalmadi, and the people involved in the Adarsh scam and all the other scams that are casting the UPA government in such a harsh light these days.

Mea culpa can only be used by people who made honest mistakes, either through ego, emotion or circumstances, but not malice. Barkha Dutt’s and Vir Sanghvi’s conversations with Niira Radia are egotistical, but not illegal. No matter how you look at the tapes, the two journalists are either being played in a pathetic fashion, or they are colluding with the “enemy". Theirs is an ethical violation, not a legal one. At least, not yet.

Both Sanghvi and Dutt claim to be masters at recognizing spin, particularly when it comes from lobbyists. Both have reacted to the tapes— Sanghvi by pulling his column from the Hindustan Times, and Dutt by justifying her actions in multiple online forums. Both gestures have been largely ineffectual. Sanghvi’s final column has provoked reader anger rather than sympathy; and Dutt has Facebook sites dedicated to getting her off air.

Some preamble here. As a woman and a feminist, I admire what Dutt has achieved. She is the face of Indian television, and she reached her current position, not as someone’s daughter (like Indira Gandhi), or daughter-in-law (like Sonia Gandhi), but through her own merit. Barring some lapses of judgement—during 26/11 and more recently, with the Radia tapes—she is a good news anchor. She is loyal, having spent her career at NDTV. She didn’t jump ship and today NDTV is returning the favour and sticking with her.

Sanghvi I have some reservations about, mostly in the areas of junkets and freebies. When he praises certain chefs or hotel chains, I cannot tell if he says what he does because they helicopter-lifted him on arrival, or fawned over him at restaurants. I am pretty sure he didn’t explicitly ask for such favours; I am also pretty sure he didn’t refuse such over-the-top free hospitality when it was offered.

Yet, I admire his writing. Sanghvi can turn self-righteousness and scorn into a well-articulated argument. He is an excellent columnist, writing polemics in a chatty, matter-of-fact tone that is very seductive. Some of his essays such as the ones comparing India and Pakistan, Rahman’s Oscar, and the movie Three Idiots are beautifully written.

Both Sanghvi and Dutt have a measure of the pulse of the audience and are clearly exceptionally bright journalists. They also have a way out of this controversy and it befuddles me why they are not grabbing it with both hands. What I am talking about is not so much an apology, as T.N. Ninan has suggested. It is something far easier to utter. It is two simple words that have been said countless times before: mea culpa. My mistake.

People in the West are experts at saying “mea culpa", particularly when they are caught or about to be caught. Witness Eliot Spitzer, Bill Clinton and Tiger Woods. When you get caught, when tapes get exposed, that’s when you get on the stage, call for a news conference, get a few supporters by your side and say, “Hey, guess what? I messed up. Shouldn’t have done it but there it is. Will make sure it won’t happen again."

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently told The Economist that he feels like a schoolboy facing a series of agonizing tests as one scandal after another breaks out. What Prime Minister Singh didn’t do was own up to his mistakes; rather, he distanced himself from it. He certainly didn’t say, “I screwed up," like Obama. Can Singh say “mea culpa" and get away with it? That’s tricky. Should B. Ramalinga Raju say “mea culpa" for letting down his shareholders? Absolutely. Should Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi say “mea culpa" for letting down their readers and viewers? Absolutely. Then, why don’t they?

I think it has to do with what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, or holding two conflicting ideas in your head. Both these journalists have been repeating that what they were doing was right; that getting close to a source was a way of accessing information; that they acted in good faith; indeed, that is how it’s done in Delhi. Perhaps they both believe it. How then to admit fault? How then to admit that they did wrong? That would make them two-faced liars.

I also believe it goes deeper than that. What this incident has done is hold up a mirror to the Indian journalistic community. Many of us recognize ourselves in Dutt and Sanghvi. But they are in the uniquely uncomfortable position of realizing that who they thought they were is very different from who they have become, not just to the general public but to their own selves. To hold a mirror up to yourself and not like what you see is an incredibly hard thing to stomach. In the face of such harsh examination and self-examination, mea culpa seems an easy way out. It won’t clean their slate but it will clear the air. It will make way for what American politicians call “the healing process".

Two words: mea culpa. It’s a start.

Shoba Narayan is a columnist with Mint Lounge

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