When MJ Akbar Finally Fell, He Splashed the Modi Government Too
Once Akbar came under the spotlight, it was no longer about him. Rather, it was on Modi’s reaction specifically.
The Quint DAILY
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History will record that in both his avatars, Mobashar Jawed Akbar ended up damaging Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ilk. As editor and author he was the copybook secularist – a man who could take on the saffron establishment and Muslim fanaticism.
He was a progressive, rum-drinking Muslim who penned a noteworthy biography of Jawaharlal Nehru. He wrote anger-tinged emotive accounts of communal riots, naming India as a proscenium for riot after riot because the nation was gripped by a siege within.
Yet, Akbar was also pragmatic. He realised early that being the poster boy of fading secularism must be politically leveraged for gain and transition.
He wormed his way into the charmed circle of the Rajiv Gandhi establishment as it battled corruption charges and set up an aborted mouth-watering electoral clash in the 1989 Lok Sabha polls with Syed Shahabuddin, the then champion of Muslim conservatism from minority-dominated Kishanganj, Bihar.
The contest eventually took place in 1991, but Akbar failed to get re-elected and was soon back in journalism.
A Critic of Narendra Modi
In his years in the media, he was a trenchant critic of the sangh parivar and of Modi when he emerged on centre stage.
A column (paradoxically still available in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn's website) he wrote for Asian Age – the stage of his alleged predatory behaviour and a paper he founded – was as sharp in criticism as the majority of Indian media then was.
“Modi is an ideologue, with a difference. The difference is hysteria. It is an edgy hysteria, which can mesmerise; and it easily melts into the kind of megalomania that makes a politician believe that he is serving the larger good through a destructive frenzy against a perceived enemy. In Hitler’s case, the enemy was the Jew; in Modi’s case, the enemy is the Muslim. Such a politician is not a fool; in fact, he may have a high degree of intellect. But it is intellect unleavened by reason, and untempered by humanism. If Modi wins big, he will immediately seek to make the whole of the BJP a version of his Gujarat experience [...] he will dream of becoming Prime Minister of India after a national victory fashioned through the Gujarat rhetoric.”MJ Akbar wrote in Asian Age
In the 12 years before he joined the BJP and offered a contrite explanation in an article for Economic Times for why he opted to do so, Akbar was considered by the sangh parivar among the core members of the ‘sickularists’ or pseudo-secularists.
Yet, the BJP took Akbar on board and immediately made him party spokesperson simply because he was a convenient stick to beat the Congress with – a hardcore Muslim secular-dynasty-loyalist.
Him switching sides was evidence that everybody was crossing over and giving Modi badly needed legitimacy.
A Setback For BJP
Yet, Akbar's past and post-being-outed behaviour has done enormous damage to Modi and his party. Ironically, the baggage of the former editor and now also ex-minister, has caused possibly one of the worst setbacks in the run up to 2019 because of the BJP's inability to respond to the crisis as promptly as it should have.
This has left Modi and the party with the image of a collective that does not practise what it preaches, a group whose each assertion stems out of convenience and not conviction.
#MeTooIndia is not, and never was, just about Akbar. Yet, he became its focus because of being indisputably the most highly placed person accused of being a sexual prowler. He operated in the terrain where the odds were stacked in his favour because he controlled professional futures of the women he targeted.
However, once Akbar came under the spotlight, the spotlight was no longer on him personally. Rather, it was on the reaction of the BJP, and on Modi specifically.
It was somewhat understandable for the prime minister and the party to wait – at least, while he was out of India – given the national prestige and international commitments at stake.
BJP’s Dilemma On Akbar’s #MeToo Response
But under what wisdom did the party allow Akbar to issue his obnoxious statement on Sunday? Surely, the party must have had a mechanism to vet what he would state in his written note wherein he claimed all allegations were "false and fabricated, spiced up by innuendo and malice."
If the party and the government do not have any system under which ministers under a cloud must discuss the contours of a public statement, it obviously is being run like a club of amateurs. This certainly is no way to govern a nation and administer a ruling party which claims it has the capacity to usher in a ‘new’ India.
By the time Akbar returned to the country, there had been a groundswell of sentiment against him, not just within the BJP and the government, but also in the RSS. The testimonies of Smriti Irani and Dattatreya Hosable are to this effect.
However, disregarding this sentiment, Modi and his coterie, mainly people instrumental in Akbar's induction in BJP in 2014 and his eventual appointment to the council of ministers, thought they would brazen out the charges by adopting a two-pronged strategy.
Firstly, by labelling women journalists who have come out as part of the tukde-tukde/urban Naxals/anti-nationals gang.
And secondly, but more importantly – in a tactic which epitomises this regime's brazenness when it comes to browbeating law-abiding professionals and citizens – it decided to allow the selective targeting and suing of Priya Ramani after enlisting a battery of lawyers from a high-profile law firm with known proximity to key individuals in this regime.
The aim was obviously to obfuscate the fact that #MeTooIndia and #MeToo movements are based on the exploitative characteristics of men in powerful positions. Instead, it was clubbed alongside protests on other issues.
Individuals active in this campaign were targeted through a disinformation drive which argued that they were at the forefront of criticism of Hindutva politics and government, and thereby, they had a political motive. This was crassly stated by Akbar in his statement when he asked why no correlation was being read into the timing of the attacks on him.
But more importantly, Ramani was singled out in the hope that the harassment and high costs the defence would entail, would scare the other women who had come out and silence several others who were weighing options on following suit.
#MeToo Shockwave Through Social Media
The women did not chicken out, and more numbers were added to their ranks. They also announced the formation of a collective that would issue joint testimonies in the case against Ramani. As a result, the government has buckled and Akbar made a sheepish exit with his past in tatters and future bleak.
In 2014, Modi had a head-start over rivals. But as Akbar’s fall from grace shows, disparaging social media campaigns can come at an enormous cost. The BJP is today an inelegant heap on the pathway to 2019 because of its over-confidence in its capacity to manipulate socio-political discourse.
The women journalists were initially shamed as being little more than Twitter warriors, but they have indeed set the agenda and forced the BJP to press the panic button. Akbar's exit happened despite the sluggishness of almost all opposition parties.
The BJP has been forced to eat humble pie and will try to convince people that the party itself forced Akbar's exit. But it will be seen as too little and too late.
The American economist Murray Rothbard is quoted as saying, "A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves." Women journalists have forced the BJP to realise the power of the powerless. The BJP will continue to pay lip service to its own lofty pronouncements at immense cost.
(The writer is a Delhi-based author and journalist. He authored ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’ and ‘Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984’. He can be reached @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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