It was good manners for early modern executioners to ask, in advance, the forgiveness of the people whose heads they were about to chop off. Rajnath Singh, the late modern president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, will perhaps appreciate the logic of this gesture. He has assured members of the minority community that “whenever, wherever, if there has been any mistake and shortcomings” on the part of the BJP, the party “will apologize” to this community with bowed heads. Is he, or is he not, apologizing with these words? To add to their ambiguity, a BJP source close to the president subsequently interpreted Mr Singh’s words as an “anticipatory apology” for mistakes that the party might commit in the future. That makes Mr Singh’s statement a proposed anticipatory apology — a mind-boggling speech-act that plays ingenious havoc with tenses and time. Anybody trying to think through this sequence of utterances is likely to feel deeply confused or deeply frightened, or both.
Persecuted communities all over the world are getting used to retrospective apologies, especially after the atrocities of World War II. And those who have made these apologies cannot, and do not, claim to have been magically absolved of the responsibilities of history. But a prospective or anticipatory apology reduces political opportunism to a level of absurdity that makes it impossible to take its most sinister implications seriously. Imagine being told, “I promise to ask you, or I might even be actually asking you, for an apology for everything that I have done to you, or might end up doing to you in the future.” In politics, this could pave the way for something as comical as, say, anticipatory separation or divorce. Ram Vilas Paswan before joining hands with the BJP, or if Mamata Banerjee ever approaches the Congress, might make amends in advance for eventually untying the knots that are being, or may be, tied as a fractious democracy gets ready to vote.
Yet, the slipperiness of such pre-emptive appeals works best, not so much in the arena of strategic alliances, as in the more dangerous liaisons of another kind of theatre. “Forgive me my errors, especially when I cannot help making them” — demanding absolution without the burden of repentance — smacks of the fake-guilty helplessness of the compulsive seducer, as he is about to do to another person something that is universally acknowledged to be as inevitable as it is irresistible. Like anticipatory bail, might the seducer’s demand not be avenged eventually, and slyly, by something that could call itself, a là Mr Singh, anticipatory abandonment? “I know you will leave me,” the seduced tells the seducer, “so, forgive me if I leave you before you leave me.” Such intrigue is, alas, a far cry from the dour games played with the truths of history by a political party desperate to come to power. But what connects them is, precisely, power — and the absurd logic of anticipation that habits of power might breed.