The MJ Akbar affair has been a bolt from the blue for the BJP. The party could manage to fend off the charges of crony capitalism in the Rafael aircraft deal, or foment orthodox Hindu sentiments on the entry of women of all ages into the Sabarimala temple. These were all par for the political course for the BJP.
But the accusations of sexual misconduct against a Union minister was a far more sensitive and even explosive matter, which flummoxed it. The accusations did not lose their potency even though Akbar was not in the BJP when he was said to have committed the offences. Nor did the long delay by the targeted women to make them fall in the category of being time barred in legal terms.
But these were not the only difficulties which the BJP faced when the charges were suddenly made by a group of women rallying under the #MeToo banner who had once had the misfortune of working under Akbar when the former Union minister of state for external affairs was an editor of various newspapers.
The BJP was apparently at a loss to counter a movement which was led by urban middle class women. It first sought to downgrade it as a kind of a fad of privileged groups which had little resonance in the rural areas, as a saffron scribe wrote while another derided it as “cosmopolitan”.
The more recent observation by a Union minister, P. Radhakrishnan, that the #MeToo movement was started by people with “perverted minds” is in line with the BJP’s general attitude towards women even if it was made after the party bowed to popular pressure, and also the disquiet felt by some of its women ministers such as the external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, and asked Akbar to step down.
That the party thought at first of brazening it out was evident from Akbar’s decision to file a defamation case against one of the victims of molestation and even hint at the charges being a part of a political conspiracy against the BJP on the eve of a series of crucial elections.
But if none of its ploys of branding the movement as cosmopolitan, perverted, urban fetish, etc could douse the flames of outrage and disgust against the minister, the reason was that not only did the sense of revulsion against a person in a powerful position who could take advantage of the vulnerabilities of scores of young women who were in his employment die down, but grew stronger with the passage of each day.
It was not only Akbar who faced the wrath of victimized women who have found their voice and become far more conscious of their rights than a decade or two ago when the misdeamenours were first committed, but also a number of film and television artistes.
The outing of these Harvey Weinsteins and Brett Kavanaughs of India has shown that the #MeToo movement has come of age in this country. That this new boldness of the women is not to the BJP’s liking is obvious because their assertions go against the BJP’s traditional concept of Indian women ~ or the Bharatiya nari, as the party would like to call them ~ as being against the traditional concept of the quiet, submissive woman who always remains in the background, preferably in the kitchen, and does only what her husband or other elderly male members of the household tell them to do.
According to the ancient Hindu text of Manusmriti or the sayings of the law-giver, Manu, a woman must be under the control of her father in childhood, of her husband in her youth, and of her children in old age. The Manusmriti is the saffron brotherhood’s Bible and it once wanted it to be the bedrock of the Indian Constitution.
Although the BJP no longer formally subscribes to these beliefs, its response to the “perverted” women of the #MeToo movement shows how deeply ingrained these antediluvian sentiments are in the party and the Hindutva brigade.
Apart from being forced to retreat in the wake of a public outcry on l’affaire Akbar, which the BJP resents because such backtracking hurts its macho image, the party is also uneasy about what these intrepid women may do in future.
Will they initiate moves to make the judiciary rethink its views on marital rape ? Considering how the Supreme Court has legalized the concept of privacy, which the Narendra Modi government argued was an “elitist” idea, endorsed gay rights and even adultery, it is quite possible that the #MeToo movement will nudge the courts to move further in the direction of making India more of a modern nation.
In political terms, Akbar’s sexual peccadilloes will continue to provide grist to the opposition’s mills as more and more lurid details of what transpired behind closed doors in Akbar’s former offices come to light during the hearing of the defamation case.
Akbar may not have been in the BJP then, but that such a person was welcomed into the party although his misbehaviour was common knowledge in journalistic circles casts light on the party’s need for someone who is fluent in writing and speaking English.
There have been several other such writers/speakers in English who have been admitted to the party although none of them had a background in the saffron parivar. In fact, like Akbar, they were (and still are) fair weather birds who flew into the BJP because of its seemingly greener pastures. The BJP may regret not having undertaken a more thorough assessment of their CVs.
The writer is a former Assistant Editor of The Statesman