Who would have thought that sorry would emerge as the most powerful word in Indian politics?

Politicians, usually not a remorseful bunch, have been quick to apologise for their misdemeanours in recent months and the results have been quite remarkable. Arvind Kejriwal swept the Delhi assembly polls while Nitish Kumar hit bull’s eye in the Bihar assembly—both admitted to wrongdoing and sought forgiveness from the people.

Apologies can make heroes out of ordinary men. Indian myths and legends extol the virtues of a king, or a god, who is humble and accepts his mistakes. And conversely they hand out doom and devastation to the arrogant and stubborn. In the Mahabharata, for example, Duryodhana is a mighty mace warrior and an expert wrestler. He is protective about Bhanumati his wife and loyal to Karna his friend. These are the same qualities that make his cousin Bhimaa hero, who also loves his wife and friends.But, yet,Duryodhanais not considered to be a hero in the epic. Pride and obduracy are his fatal characterflaws. If Duryodhana had said sorry, he may have found himself among the heroes.

Apologies are a sign of humility and a sign of heroic greatness. Arrogance, on the other hand, is the mark of a Rakshasa. Ravana, Kubera and almost every other Rakshasa who met his death at the hands of a god suffered for this. Arrogance in a god was unacceptable too. One story in the BhagavataPurana describes how the people of Brindavan were terrorised by Indra, the god of rain who demanded rigorous and ostentatious sacrifices and rituals. If they failed to comply he would wreak flood, famine and drought upon them. Krishna asked them to desist from praying to such a god. Instead, he said, they should worship the Govardhan hill which brought them rain and kept their farms fertile. An angry Indra unleashed the heavens upon the small town; homes and farms floated away in a sea of mud. Krishna lifted the hill with his little finger to form an umbrella over the flood-hit village forcing Indra to call back his destructive demons and seek forgiveness. Ever since, the hill has been worshipped and a special day set aside for its festival while Indra, even though he kept his position as the king of gods, no longer has a festival to his name.

Indra’s arrogance led him into trouble more than once. Victorious after a long and exhausting battle with Vritra, the demon who had swallowed the waters of the universe, IndraaskedVishwakarmato build him a palace that befitted his greatness. But nothing pleased Indra. The palace was, either, not grand enough, or not big enough. Frustrated and tired,Vishwakarma appealed to the holy trinity for help. Vishnu came to his rescue. He took the form of a Brahmin boy and appeared at Indra’s palace. The boy praised the structure and remarked that this palace was grander than the palaces of all earlier Indras. This invited rebuke: What did the boy mean by earlier Indras? He was the one and onlyIndra. At that moment, a row of ants crawled into the palace and the boy pointed at them saying that these were all the past Indras who had ruled over different universes during different times. And he had seen them all. Chastised and suitably embarrassed, Indra bowed to him and set off on a long and hard penance to atone for the sin of hubris.

Contrition and penitence have also been heroic traits in nations. Germany and Japan have both apologised for their role in World War II. Companies go down on their knees too. Japanese company CEOs routinely bow and apologise to shareholders. At Apple, Tim Cook apologised to his customers for a faulty ‘Maps’ app (http://www.apple.com/letter-from-tim-cook-on-maps/). HSBC chief executive, Stuart Gulliver has apologised too for his bank’s recent misdemeanours.

However, not all apologies work. If there is a hint of self-righteousness or hollowness in the admission of guilt, the company, country or individual faces retribution not redemption. In recent times, Uber is an example of how an insincere sorry can make villains out of heroes as is the letter that KiranBedi wrote. She was sorry, she said, for not living up to people’s expectations but, that was prefaced with a list of her achievements and lofty intentions. All it takes to win over hearts is a sincere five-letter word.