Veteran editor and former union minister MJ Akbar shot off his resignation letter to the Prime Minister's Office and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj around 4 PM on Wednesday. The move was as sudden as it was unexpected.
Only on Monday, Akbar had filed a criminal defamation case against journalist Priya Ramani for accusing him publicly of sexual harassment and misconduct.
Akbar, the minister of state for external affairs, had accused Ramani of “making false and defamatory statements” against him through an article and series of tweets and had sought her prosecution under the penal provision on defamation.
A day earlier, Akbar had described multiple allegations of sexual harassment against him as “wild and baseless” on his return from an official foreign tour.
What happened in the two days that forced Akbar to change his mind?
On Wednesday morning, hours before Akbar’s resignation, there were murmurs in the bureaucracy that his time was up. Still, not many were willing to believe this chatter given Akbar’s belligerence on Monday.
Indeed, between October 9 and 14, top officials in the government had told CNBC-TV18 that nothing was going to happen to Akbar and his resignation had not been sought either.
There was no statement from either the government, the ministry of external affairs or the BJP on the issue, despite the issue dominating headlines during those days.
The Tuesday Meeting
A BJP spokesperson even told CNBC-TV18 on the condition of anonymity that there was no reason for Akbar to go as the allegations of sexual misconduct did not pertain to his tenure as minister.
While Akbar was touring Nigeria, Swaraj called him and spoke about the allegations, said a source, but CNBC-TV18 could not confirm the contents of that conversation.
But things began to radically change on Tuesday. That morning, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval met Akbar at his residence, according to multiple people familiar with the matter. They did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Doval has been described as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s eyes and ears in the government on critical matters.
The RSS Factor
Meanwhile, despite the BJP and the government’s silence, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parental bedrock of the BJP, was quietly building pressure on the government.
RSS sources said senior functionary Dattatreya Hosable's tweet seven days ago was a clear message to the government that Akbar had to go.
Hosabale, a joint general secretary of the RSS, shared a post by Facebook executive Ankhi Das supporting the #Metoo movement and tweeted it with his own comment, "I liked it. She has articulated what I was feeling". Hosabale is number three in the RSS hierarchy and perceived to be close to Modi.
Sangh functionaries whom CNBC-TV18 approached said there could be no two ways about the case and there can be no compromise with women's safety and respect.
Later on Tuesday, more women journalists went public accusing Akbar of sexual misconduct and espousing their support for Ramani. By then, the government realised that Ramani was not alone in the fight against Akbar and there was no telling about how many more women journalists would speak out against him.
Doval’s meeting with MJ Akbar was part of a process to decide to put an end or at least apply the brakes to a narrative that was fast spinning out of control, said the people quoted above. Akbar could no longer be defended and had to go — the message was duly conveyed, they said.
Akbar’s resignation followed soon after.
Disclosure: All matters brought to Network18’s attention which are within the purview of the workplace have been forwarded to our Internal Committee for Prevention of Sexual Harassment at the workplace for appropriate action. The Internal Committee is independent and all recommendations made by it are followed through by Management action. Network18 Group has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to sexual harassment. The company complies fully with all legal provisions and seeks to ensure a speedy and effective Redressal on complaints