Union Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar on Sunday did not just refute allegations of making sexual overtures, impropriety in public behaviour towards junior women colleagues and even molestation, but also threatened legal action against those who levelled these accusations. His decision to do so could not have been taken without clearance at the highest level in the Bharatiya Janata Party and the government. Any alteration in this script will only add to the embarrassment of the party.
The decision, taken in the wake of visible righteous anger within a section of the party and even the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, including by Union textiles minister Smriti Irani and Dattatreya Hosable, Sah-Sarakaryavaah (Joint General Secretary), both of whom lent support to women who spoke out as part of the #MeTooIndia campaign on Twitter, shows that the top leadership decided to go strictly by legalities.
Obviously, this regime has been guided by the assessment that asking or getting Akbar to quit would undermine its image of a robust and decisive government. Clearly, the party and government leadership does not wish the regime to be seen as weak-kneed and unsure of its previous decisions.
It does not wish to allow the impression to gain currency that a few hundred Twitter warriors can fell one of its members and dent the government's image. If Akbar had been asked to go, questions would have been also raised about the quality of background checks done before a person is inducted into high positions of the government.
Given that the Akbar episode has played out so close to the charges against the American judge Brett Kavanaugh, whose confirmation to the country’s Supreme Court was backed by President Donald Trump despite a plethora of credible accusations, the Indian public will find paradoxical parallels between Trump's stance on accusations against a judge chosen by him for the highest court and this regime.
The words of Trump at last week's swearing-in ceremony of judge Kavanaugh must be recalled. He began by apologising to the judge and his family for the "terrible pain and suffering you have been forced to endure" and remarked that anyone who stepped forward to "serve our country deserves a fair and dignified evaluation, not a campaign of political and personal destruction based on lies and deception."
BJP president Amit Shah, in his remarks recently, had specified the need to verify if the allegations were correct or not. He had said, "We have to check the veracity of the post and the person who posted it," adding the preposterous suggestion that someone else could have been posting these tweets on behalf of the women journalists. Obviously, by then, the BJP had decided that they would be guided strictly by legal evidence against Akbar and not by social media posts. It is a quirk of fate that a regime which owes considerably to social media for being in office, now wishes to delegitimise the dominant narrative on it.
Akbar's statement reflects the conclusion of the party that charges against him cannot be proven in any court of law. Or, as Akbar pointed out in his statement, many of the eleven women journalists stated he did not “do” anything: "If I didn't do anything, where and what is the story? There is no story. This was admitted at the very inception. But a sea of innuendo, speculation and abusive diatribe has been built around something that never happened. Some are total, unsubstantiated hearsay; others confirm, on the record, that I didn’t do anything.."
The reasoning within the BJP to go strictly by legal evidence to back the charges was palpable even before Shah's statement and one unnamed BJP leader was quoted in a report as virtually ruling out Akbar's resignation: "The most stringent action that the government could initiate against Akbar was launching an informal inquiry against the journalist-turned-politician," the report said.)
The similarity between Trump and the Modi regime's defence of judge Kavanaugh and Akbar is evident in the American president's argument that those who "serve" the nation need better treatment. Akbar did not ask for such a privilege, but in his statement he used an innuendo: the accusations were politically motivated. "Why has this storm risen a few months before a general election? Is there an agenda? You be the judge," Akbar asked, almost accusing the women journalists and those who have lent support to the #MeTooIndia — this includes Hosabale ironically — of being part of the plan to defeat the BJP in 2019.
The government and the BJP have never had much love lost for a section of the media and journalists. Akbar's insinuation adds to the party campaign that liberal India, and the section of the media which is part of that group, is essentially anti-national and backs forces, including left-wing extremists, out to destroy the nation.
Already, a campaign is underway on social media pointing to the coincidence that many of the women (and men) who have either directly levelled charges or have backed those who made the charges, are known for their writing critical of the Modi government. It is only a rare journalist who, while being supportive of the Modi government's policies, has also been dissatisfied with Akbar's refusal to put in his papers.
When Akbar uses the word “agenda”, it is difficult to ignore that this word has been used repeatedly by BJP spokespersons to allege that critics, including sections of the media, have an agenda. It is unlikely that he would have made such an assertion without clearance. Obviously, the party is of the opinion that offence is the best policy and in the coming days, one can expect more pointed criticism of the #MeTooIndia storm.
The government evidently believes that the storm over Akbar and #MeTooIndia will be weathered. But in trying to protect its image of not bending to public pressure, it has put at risk belief in its public commitment to improve the condition of women in the country through its flagship programmes like Beti Bachao Beti Padao and its promises to make work spaces more secure for women. The issues raised through this social media campaign will continue causing much pain to the BJP during the war for 2019.
Network 18, of which Firstpost is a part, has received complaints of sexual harassment as well. The complaints which are within the purview of the workplace have been forwarded to our PoSH committee for appropriate action.
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Updated Date: Jan 08, 2019 13:15:56 IST