MJ Akbar quits: Inside story of how BJP leadership took final call amid mounting pressure, differences in Cabinet

After the Union Cabinet meeting ended last Wednesday—after clearing at least seven items on the agenda—Prime Minister Narendra Modi left the room. However, some ministers did not follow him. Instead, they began to discuss, albeit informally, an issue concerning the government: The #MeToo movement and the allegations of sexual harassment against MJ Akbar by 35 women (during his days as editor of various publications).

 MJ Akbar quits: Inside story of how BJP leadership took final call amid mounting pressure, differences in Cabinet

File image of MJ Akbar. Reuters

At the time, Akbar was on a tour of Africa in his capacity as a junior minister. Then, around 20 women, as part of a #MeToo campaign, came forward on social media to accuse Akbar of making unwanted advances and sexually harassing them in hotel rooms or at the office. The narrative on social media, digital media, print and television was that these accusations were causing embarrassment to the Modi government.

Firstpost learnt from reliable sources that the ministers' opinions differed. Unsure of the prime minister's thoughts, some favoured no substantial intervention, but at least two senior ministers—perceived to be very important in the government—felt allegations on social media should not mean Akbar’s removal from the council of ministers. Another minister argued that Akbar's tenure at the ministry of external affairs was, thus far, dignified. However, a fourth minister, differed vehemently, cited certain facts and argued why Akbar must go.

Sources said at one point, it was considered at senior levels in the government, that Akbar should be asked to cut short his trip and return to New Delhi but that idea was quickly abandoned and it was decided that he should stick to his original schedule.

At the same time, Maneka Gandhi and Smriti Irani—two Union ministers—gave statements supporting the #MeToo movement. However, they did not say anything against Akbar directly. Since Maneka is the minister for women and child development, she's directly dealing with issues of this nature. She'd also articulated how the government should deal with it: putting a “She Box” to file complaints of sexual harassment, clarifying with law ministry whether or not there was a legal bar in terms of time frame in filing complaints, and sought similar clarification on cases of child abuse. She also then stated publicly that her ministry would constitute a committee of four retired judges to look into such cases: Maneka's opinion mattered significantly.

But External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj—whose opinion mattered most—preferred to stay mum, at least publicly. MEA officials and staff also had no issues with Akbar. When Akbar returned on Sunday, public chatter about his fate reached a peak. However, the government did not ask him to resign. A minister said the idea was to give the impression that leadership does not take decisions under pressure.

Sources said Maneka's ministry even began working on identifying retired judges who could be part of the committee. However, that idea didn't take off. That day, Akbar filed a criminal defamation suit against Priya Ramani, the first woman who accused him of sexual harassment.  There were then reports that 97 lawyers had been roped in to defend Akbar, which drew sharp reactions on social media. And even more women came forward (35 at last count) to accuse Akbar of sexual harassment and 'predatory acts'.

Also, 20 women scribes, who were part of the first few teams set up by Akbar when he launched The Asian Age in 1994, wrote a petition describing his behaviour and condemning his sexual advances and asked the court hearing the defamation case to consider their testimony about the "culture of casual misogyny, entitlement and sexual predation that he engendered and presided over" at the organisation.

Sources said a top PMO official Tuesday held detailed consultations with one or two concerned ministers. During that meeting, one woman minister, armed with some papers, forcefully outlined the reasons why Akbar must quit. Even as those meetings were occurring, more and more women came forward. Akbar's presence in the government was becoming untenable.  The prime minister was apprised of the developments and all aspects related to it, sources said. On Tuesday evening, leadership took the final call that Akbar needed to quit. Akbar announced his resignation Wednesday.

The PMO is also considering constituting a group of ministers chaired by Home Minister Rajnath Singh—with Maneka Gandhi, Nitin Gadkari or Nirmala Sitharaman as members—to look into policies on sexual harassment. The terms of reference for the group are being prepared and is likely to be announced sometime next week.

Updated Date: Oct 18, 2018 20:15:40 IST