Two days after he went on an offensive to defend himself and moved the court with a battery of lawyers against one of the several women who accused him of sexual harassment, junior foreign minister MJ Akbar stepped down even before the brazen fight back. The flip-flop in dealing with issues as sensitive as dignity of women is a commentary on the Modi government’s style of functioning. Whenever the Modi ministers have been caught in the storm in the last four years, the strategy has been to fight out rather than step down.
But the stink raised by the Akbar episode was so strong that the government had started smelling of repulsive body odour. The resignation, however, has come a day too late for the government to resurrect whatever was left of its image. The charges against the minister were from his earlier avatar as editor but the way government dithered in taking moral responsibility and failed to ask him to clear his name to continue as minister was baffling. The feedback from within the external affairs ministry’s ecosystem, which included retired diplomats, on the minister’s continuance was extremely negative. Former foreign secretary Nirupama Rao spoke up after the resignation saying his continuation was untenable and indefensible. The government has still not answered what made it defend the indefensible.
Until that answer is found one must recall that calls for the arrest of BJP’s UP MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar accused in Unnao rape and murder case fell on deaf ears until the public outcry reached a crescendo earlier this year. Even in Akbar’s case, the #MeToo claims about his alleged misconduct over several decades, continued to surface despite his defiance and the threat of legal recourse.
But brazening it out is Modi government’s style. From the very beginning. Nihal Chand Meghwal, a four-time MP from Ganganagar, was already in the dock after his name appeared in an alleged rape case, and yet he was appointed the Union minister of state for ministy of panchayati raj in the very first Modi cabinet in 2014. As voices against him got stronger, BJP spokespersons kept defending Meghwal on media platforms. He was eased out in reshuffle months later but not asked to step down.
By delaying Akbar’s resignation, prime minister Modi has taken the first blow on his chin. It is also the first incident when a social media campaign led to the resignation of a Union minister and the government made international headlines for all the wrong reasons in an election season. Perhaps it is the pressure of the upcoming state elections that has forced this rethink. The government may not have cared for the largely urban, elite women voters who were voicing themselves on the social media, but somewhere it did realise, a bit late though, the repercussions of antagonising a large section of the media, by ignoring women journalists who were braving great risks and trauma to out a predator minister. With the entertainment and corporate world also gradually rising up to the challenge of ensuring gender parity and safer workplaces, the government could not have been seen to be sitting duck on those issues. Especially, when it has been touting “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao” endlessly over the past four years. Akbar’s exit is a delayed facesaver. But thanks to it, government hypocrisy on issues of women’s safety lies exposed.