Minister's statement a shaming moment

The government's slogan of Beti bachao, beti padhao! rings hollow today. It might as well be just Beti bachao!

The statement by M.J. Akbar, minister of state for external affairs, upon his return Sunday from Africa where he had gone on official work, becomes a shaming moment for the government he serves. For the rest of the country, Mr Akbar’s response to the #Me Too campaign, which made it possible for at least 15 women, starting October 8, to assail him on the social media for being a “sexual predator”, can only be called cringe-worthy.

The junior minister called the allegations “fabricated”. He said he is consulting lawyers to challenge the accusations against him in court. He said the accusations had come just months before a general election, and blatantly implied that those questioning him had political motivations, as if 15 different women of various backgrounds and ages could have a political agenda. He has asked the people to be the judge of this.

Since that’s the tack the minister has chosen, it will be fascinating to see if he shows the gumption to follow through on his threat of going to court. However, asking the people to sit in judgment, which evidently means to vote for his party, and expressing the intention to go to court are very different things.

Mr Akbar should make a clear choice — the people’s court or a judicial forum? If he now equivocates on going to court, his credibility may be further impaired.

Conceivably too, the Supreme Court could lift the burden of choice off Mr Akbar’s shoulders by treating the testimonies of the 15 women on the social media as a public interest litigation as this issue is one of great public interest, indeed of national importance. The point simply is whether a person facing allegations of being a “sexual predator” should be in the Union council of ministers. Does the Prime Minister’s prerogative of keeping ministers extend to retaining those accused of falling over moral red lines?

Speaking constitutionally, should the PM keep as minister someone whose moral scruples are suspect, as alleged? Honeytraps being a fact of life, does vulnerability attach to such a minister?

But it’s more than an individual’s fate that concerns us here. The mere fact that Mr Akbar has chosen to issue the kind of statement he has evidently means he has a green signal from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In effect, that means continuing the tradition of this government to brazen it out, unconcerned with public opinion. We saw this in the matter of external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and Rajasthan CM Vasudhare Raje in the Lalit Modi case. Nor did heads roll when diamond merchant Nirav Modi vanished from the country after stealing millions from Punjab National Bank, or for that matter Vijay Mallaya. No Union minister faced any heat.

The government’s slogan of “Beti bachao, beti padhao!” rings hollow today. It might as well be just “Beti bachao!”

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