Rather than give in to a perfectly justified sense of outrage over M.J. Akbar brazening out the #MeToo storm against him, his refusal to step down from the ministerial perch should be lustily cheered. The Bharatiya Janata Party establishment has just advertised to the whole wide world that it has lost its marbles.
Akbar’s performance on Sunday could not have been enacted without the NDA political commissars’ imprimatur. In this defiance can be located the Narendra Modi regime’s soft-underbelly of moral waywardness. The bottom-line is simple: the man who once in the ’80s was a shinning secular star has today deftly manoeuvred himself into an albatross around Modi’s neck.
Though M.J. Akbar is lighter than a political lightweight, it will do well to keep in mind his symbolic centrality to the Modi project. Remember, he was once a card-carrying Rajiv Gandhi groupie, who remained loyal to the durbar through the thick and thin of the Bofors ignominy. But once a political junkie, always a political junkie. Spurned by Sonia Gandhi, he shopped around for new political patrons. His practised animosity towards Sonia Gandhi and her family endeared him to the saffron crowd. He effortlessly drifted into the drummer’s space in the Vajpayee inner cheerleading orchestra. After the 2002 Gujarat riots, his presence in the saffron choir was not without its uses.
In the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha battle the Narendra Modi camp was looking for some experienced, educated, English-speaking sharp-shooters. Akbar was around; his recruitment to the Modi roughland was not without its symbolic usefulness. His presence in Modi’s entourage helped the new regime acquire a semblance of middle class respectability. It probably prompted very many from the Manmohan Singh decency constituency to cross over to the BJP in 2014. His plummy presence lent a patina of intellectual heft to an otherwise distinctly “B.Com” crowd (barring the honourable exception of Subramanian Swamy)
The same M.J. Akbar, who once helped Narendra Modi garner a mien of respectability which, in turn, enabled the Gujarat chief minister to sell himself as a standard-bearer of good governance and clean politics, has now turned out to be damaged goods. Life often turns out to be unfair. Unsavoury pasts have a way of catching up with the present. But Akbar cannot be easily un-hugged. Only a few weeks ago he was being trotted out to assert that there was no “Uncle Quattrocchi” in the dubious Rafale business.
All these four years the BJP commissars were determinedly set on a strategy of firmness, projecting the appearance of being strong and decisive – unconcerned with critics and their carping nit-picking, indeed refusing to grant anyone a right to judge its performance, leave alone sit in moral judgment over manifestations of waywardness among its ranks. It brazened out the Lalit Modi caper; it stood its ground after Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi cocked a snook at the Modi arrangements. And, now there is the M.J. Akbar embarrassment.
Yet in this essay in defiance, Akbar has offered the country a rare peep into the closed world of political bosses, and how the react when under siege. It is obvious that the Rafale controversy has taken a toll of their collective judgment and verve – and, more significantly, led to a curdling of their moral cogency. A debilitating botch-up; and, it will be noticed – and, resented – by the middle classes, the central core of “the Modi appeal.”
The #MeToo movement is very much a middle class phenomenon, touching a raw nerve among the emerging professional women workforce in India. After all, poor women in our cities and villages do remain subjected – and, have remained subjected all these years – to ugly rites of subordination and exploitation. But the new professional woman refuses to put up with this ugly reality. And perhaps, it can be suggested that the rationale of Narendra Modi’s own ‘Beti bachao, beti padhao’ campaign is anchored in the unacceptability of that ugly reality.
Intrinsic to the new market-created professional work space is a promise of courtesy, respect and recognition to women employees and colleagues. The middle classes’ aspirational world – to which the messiahs of a new India, a gentler India, often pay tribute – is predicated on an equal deal for women and an inherent right to a safe work place, free of predators and free from rituals of exploitation. The middle class demand for decency in public life hinges very much on a fair deal for women. Middle classes may privately subscribe to all our civilisational hypocrisies, but their greatest source of self-esteem is a pretence of moral aversion towards any kind of ethical tawdriness in public life.
Indeed, the women ministers in the Narendra Modi council of ministers who applauded the courage of those who had spoken up against M.J. Akbar, were acknowledging the sanctity of that aspiration among women, at home and at work.
The social media storm over allegations of Akbar’s behaviour had given Modi an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of ethical conduct, to recover from the creeping moral precariousness of his regime. That option, we now know, has been rejected.
All that pretended deference to the middle classes and their demand for decency in public life has given way to the unsentimental political calculations of expedient back-room strategists. The middle classes, in effect, are being told that the Modi Project has its own priorities ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha battle and, according to these cunning calculations of some very unsentimental men, a minister cannot be made to resign simply because middle class sensibilities have been offended. There is an election to be won, and the middle classes might as well lump it. In effect, the middle classes’ acquiescence is being sought in a certain kind of moral shabbiness. And, that, simply will not do.
It is just as well that the Minister of State for External Affairs has dug his heels in and has initiated legal action. His resignation would have at least closed the closet door on the abounding ethical infirmities and deficiencies. His continued presence as a minister in the Modi regime will be a daily reminder of a certain kind of moral squalidness. This in-your-face defiance will eat into Narendra Modi’s acceptance, at home and abroad. No society can hope to aspire for national grandeur and redemption without a decency code.
Harish Khare is a journalist who lives and works in Delhi. He was, until recently, editor-in-chief of The Tribune.