MJ Akbar quits: Modi went by Ajit Doval's advice to seek ex-editor's exit; mounting #MeToo charges swung decision

New Delhi: Less than 24 hours short of the scheduled hearing of former Minister of State MJ Akbar’s defamation case against journalist Priya Ramani by a magistrate’s court at Patiala House, a briefing from National Security Advisor Ajit Doval led Prime Minister Narendra Modi to pull the rug from under the politician and demand his resignation, two senior government officials have told Firstpost.

The decision, the sources said, was driven by Akbar’s failure to provide a clear picture of how many more women were likely to come forward as witnesses against him and what the content of their testimony might be — leaving the government open to a barrage of criticism.

Akbar had filed criminal defamation proceedings against Ramani for alleging he sexually harassed employees, a claim that was then backed up by more than 20 other former employees of the newspaper editor-turned-politician.

Even before Akbar’s return to New Delhi from Equatorial Guinea on 14 October, highly placed government sources said that he had held extensive telephone consultations with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, at the prime minister’s urging. A senior BJP functionary said Jaitley was picked both because of his legal expertise and his sensitivity to the party’s political concerns.

 MJ Akbar quits: Modi went by Ajit Dovals advice to seek ex-editors exit; mounting #MeToo charges swung decision

File photo of MJ Akbar. Image Courtesy: Twitter/@mjakbar

Even though neither Modi nor BJP president Amit Shah were especially invested in Akbar’s political career, the functionary said both were concerned that acting under media and Opposition pressure could set a precedent for future cases.

“Having been at the receiving end of media campaigns against them in the past," the functionary said, “both were easily persuaded that #MeToo was a politically-driven campaign."

Following extended discussions with the finance minister on Monday, Akbar worked with top lawyer Rayan Karanjawala to draft the now-infamous statement protesting his innocence, as describing the #MeToo movement as a politically-inspired “virus”.

But, as numbers of women applied to be impleaded along with journalist Priya Ramani, the startled prime minister moved on Tuesday to review his position.

Modi’s attitude to the case, government sources said, changed after an hour-long meeting between Doval and Akbar at the minister’s house on Wednesday. "It appeared," said an official familiar with the discussions, “that they were totally unprepared for how many women would come out with credible allegations against the minister."

Doval, the sources said, had been dispatched to gain a clear understanding from the minister of how many women were likely to offer testimony in the case, and what the content of their allegations would be. Akbar, according to the sources, gave no clear account of either the numbers of women involved, or their possible testimony.

Following this meeting, Doval returned to the prime minister, and laid out the potential outcomes for the government: that ever-larger numbers of women would testify against a minister the government was seen as defending, adding to the embarrassment.

Pressure from powerful elements in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — whose conservative ethos was repelled by the allegations — may also have contributed to the government’s stand.

RSS number three Dattatreya Hosable tweeted in support of the #MeToo movement after the allegations against Akbar surfaced. RSS-affiliated BJP leader R Balashankar, in turn, was reported as saying he saw no reason for the party to “get involved in Akbar’s personal battle to save his reputation”.

Inside the ranks of the BJP, there was also disquiet among senior women politicians. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, who met with Akbar on Sunday to discuss the allegations against him, declined to comment on his claims of innocence. For their part, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Textiles Minister Smriti Irani spoke in support of the #MeToo movement.

Updated Date: Oct 18, 2018 09:46:58 IST