There are several reasons why the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is palpably uneasy about the “Me-too” movement against the sexual harassment of women at the workplace, especially when Minister of State for External Affairs M.J. Akbar is in the line of fire. As a newspaper has noted, several ministers literally ran away when asked about the allegations against Akbar.
There have also been attempts to downplay the complaints both on the grounds of the delay in lodging them, as a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) luminary argued, and as an issue of concern mainly to the urban elite.
One probable explanation for the BJP’s unease is the party’s general unwillingness to be seen as being pushed around.
It doesn’t want to take a decision on, say, the dismissal of the minister as demanded by the Congress and others, including the media, lest it is seen as having been taken under pressure. The party apparently feels that such a step will hurt the party’s macho image.
Another reason for the BJP’s hesitancy in, for instance, asking the minister to cut short his foreign trip is that it is unused to dealing with an issue of private sexual (mis)behaviour. This was the reason why it recused itself from the hearing on the case of gay rights in the Supreme Court, leaving it to the “wisdom of the court” to take a decision on its own.
As at present, there was also similar prolonged silence after the rape and murder of a minor girl in Kathua till a BJP spokesperson accused the opposition of communalising the incident.
The party is usually at its articulate best when it can lambast the opposition for being anti-national as on the Rafale controversy. Or when it can hold forth on the “termites” identified in the National Register of Citizens dealing with illegal immigrants.
Or when it can side with the women devotees of the Sabarimala temple who are against the Supreme Court’s judgment allowing — in its “wisdom” — the entry of women of all ages into the shrine.
But the “Me-too” movement, with its distinctly modern, feminist ambience, is not quite what a party guided by the patriarchal RSS can easily accept. Besides, as BJP MP Udit Raj has pointed out, the complainants are not all “goddesses” who have to be implicitly believed.
What must be of concern to the BJP is the possibility that if the pro-women movement gains ground, it can lead to other path-breaking initiatives such as criminalising marital rape.
Given the sensitive nature of the movement, the party is unable to dismiss it as “manufactured” dissent as it did in the case of those who returned their awards in protest against the government’s functioning.
The involvement of the middle class — the Lutyens’ clique, as the upper class denizens of Delhi’s privileged living space are derisively called by the saffron brotherhood — is another aspect of the scene which will not be to the BJP’s liking.
Considering that the party’s 2014 success was based on the support which it received from the middle class, among others, any sign of their disenchantment will be a cause of worry to the BJP. It goes without saying that the Congress and other opposition parties will lose no time in taking advantage of the BJP’s discomfiture.
At the same time, it is no secret that the misconduct of uncouth men in influential positions is not a new phenomenon. Like the proverbial casting couch in the film industry, such lewd behaviour has long been prevalent in all offices, including the ivory towers of journalism.
The question is why has it taken so long for the delinquency of the adults to be exposed when it was always known. Why were the media barons silent when they must have known how their star scribes were sexually exploiting young interns? It is only now that a few heads have rolled in newspaper offices.
It has taken the uncommon boldness of a few, starting with Tanushree Dutta’s complaint against Nana Patekar, for the dam to burst. The next step will be to see how the law takes its own course since the sexual peccadilloes of powerful men fall in the category of criminal offences.
There are, of course, a few who are already in the dock, such as a former editor of Tehelka. But will the powers that be show as much eagerness to go after the big fish as they do when chasing the alleged financial misdeamenours of political opponents and critical media houses?
For the BJP, the outing of “dirty” secrets by a number of intrepid women has come at an inopportune time.The party was hoping to ride into the forthcoming electoral battles in the five states this winter on the issues of “termites” eroding the country’s demographic scene and the past misdeeds of the “naamdars” or opposition dynasts.
But, suddenly, a group of bold women has queered the pitch for the party.