Most of us had heard stories about MJ Akbar, India’s junior foreign minister, and his glad eye. Even those who had never worked with him heard at least a rumour of one sexual dalliance. (It is true of the professionals now “outed” in the #MeToo movement that finally hit urban India – each exhibited a pattern of behaviour over a stretch of time.) So it was no surprise when 14 women summoned the courage to detail how he made them feel objectivised, or worse. What was surprising was how he is brazening it out: going on the offensive, issuing an aggressive statement against the allegations; filing a defamation case against the first woman to open his Pandora’s box, Priya Ramani; and imputing a politics to it, as it comes months before the parliamentary election – though he is hardly the BJP’s vote-getter, and the other accused (authors, Bollywood-types, ad-makers, etc) have even less to do with elections. He has resigned but it is appalling that Akbar did not even offer a token apology, and worse he is acting like a cheap goon. It is worrying because as a minister he provided a template for other accused to react. In India, #MeToo took a year in coming, but the backlash is almost immediate.
Brazen is this era’s word. In the US, Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the supreme court despite a history (and a pattern of behaviour common among privileged caucasian collegians) of binge-drinking and sexual predation; all he had to do was simply brazen it out. His president, Donald Trump, routinely abuses journalists and lies about their investigations; his supporters have attacked reporters covering his rallies. Trump gets away with it. No wonder that Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrested over 200 journalists last year, with six of them getting life sentences recently. Whoever recently murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has been pretty brazen about it – any which way you look at it.
It is unsurprising that strongmen leaders and their followers are brazen. Their rise is predicated on the belief in their personal incorruptibility and their perceived ability to cut through red-tape and get things done. If anyone has a word of dissent, then simply ignore them; if the noise gets too loud, then get rid of them, for nothing should get in the way of getting the job done, be it institutions of governance like the courts or parliament or the election commission, or even democracy itself. Like monarchs of the Middle Ages, such men believe they are divinely ordained to course-correct their national destiny. Brazening through minor digressions along the way is a no-brainer for them.
This is the only explanation for why India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not immediately dump a politically insignificant minister like Akbar, particularly since the #MeToo allegations undermine his narrative of a government that cares about the Indian woman – be it the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao slogan (save daughters, educate daughters) or even the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwal Yojana, which provides free cooking gas connections to the poor, one of the justifications being that earthen stoves fuelled by wood or cow-dung contributes to respiratory diseases and deaths in rural women. Then again, it’s not just Akbar; Modi allowed a state-level representative, Kuldeep Singh Sengar of Uttar Pradesh, to continue despite his being named by a 17-year-old girl he allegedly raped (she committed suicide, and when her father complained, the police beat him to death).
Leave aside criminal activity, Modi has not even gotten rid of the worst finance minister India has ever had, despite a chance to do so this year. Arun Jaitley has been so hands-off that he left the implementation of a sensible tax reform, the Goods and Services Tax, to his bureaucrats, with the result that it was implemented terribly (it has been amended nearly 400 times since its introduction in July 2017). Jaitley has been so negligent that he let a major scandal brew and only recently was it unearthed: the Infrastructure Leasing & Financing Services (IL&FS) slipping to Rs 900 billion in debt (its chairman has fled the country and the government reconstituted the IL&FS board at the start of October). Jaitley is so limited that he is clueless on how to respond to the rising price of crude oil and the falling rupee. When Jaitley recently had a medical procedure, his ministry was handed over to Piyush Goel, but Jaitley has been bafflingly reinstated. Like Akbar, he has no electoral influence.
This is the problem with brazening things out. When you are deaf to criticism or dissent, you become blind to the problems that beset governance in a vast country like India’s. Instead of course-correcting, what you actually do is dig yourself deeper into a hole.