The Minister of State for External Affairs, M.J. Akbar, should have done the only right thing in the circumstances — resign. This was the only course to limit the already significant damage to the high office he holds. His legacy in Indian journalism would also have been better served had he quit first and attempted to defend himself legally or otherwise later. Unfortunately, he chose not to. Upon his return to Delhi from an overseas official trip on Sunday, he went on the offensive by dismissing the long string of charges of sexual harassment made against him by former women colleagues as a tissue of lies. He chose to spin an unconvincing web of conspiracy around the sudden spate of the #MeToo disclosures over the last week. Mr. Akbar’s basic theme: with elections round the corner, these charges are motivated. There is a second, more specific line in his attempted defence — one that suggests that the gravamen of the charges is vague and unsubstantiated. While it is true that not every one of the dozen or so women have claimed they were physically assaulted, the overall picture they have painted is that of a systematic pattern of sexual harassment. Their stories range from suggestiveness and innuendo to outright molestation. Together they make for sad and worrying reading, but at least a couple highlight how far he seemed willing to go. Ghazala Wahab, now executive editor at FORCE magazine, has written of repeated molestation at his hands in the mid-1990s when he was her editor at Asian Age . Majlie de Puy Kamp, now a New York-based reporter, has spoken of how a decade later he forcibly kissed her, when she was 18 and interning with him.
Mr. Akbar’s conspiracy theory that the #MeToo charges have settled upon him because elections are now looming is weak and totally unconvincing. He has no political heft and a conspiracy to tarnish him and secure his speedy exit from the Narendra Modi government would have left it none the weaker. Now that he has decided to dig his heels in, the focus cannot but shift to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Why wasn’t his resignation demanded and secured on his return to the Capital? Surely, the Prime Minister had more than enough time to sift through the charges, take stock of Mr. Akbar’s alleged misdemeanours and conclude whether he should continue in the Cabinet. By failing to immediately force him to step down, Mr. Modi has sent an unfortunate message about his government’s attitude to harassment and the protection of women in workspaces. He has appeared as if he is standing behind Mr. Akbar and will be perceived by many as having failed India’s women.