How our politicians let us down…

Business Standard

Their response to l’affaire Akbar illustrates the yawning gap between them and urban, middle-class, English-speaking India

By Karan Thapar

Do we get the politicians we deserve? This somewhat bleak belief is usually held by people who feel let down. However, I would argue that we in India have a right to expect better. Political betrayal cannot be so easily understood or forgiven.

Despite M.J. Akbar’s belated resignation yesterday afternoon, the response of our politicians to L’affaire Akbar illustrates the yawning gap between them and urban, middle-class, english-speaking India. They don’t seem to share our ethics or moral principles and they certainly don’t feel the same sense of outrage when these are transgressed. It almost feels as if they’re unaware of our concerns and live in a cocoon of their own.

The Prime Minister’s lack of response was perhaps the most inexplicable of all. Akbar was, after all, a member of his Council of Ministers and specifically chosen, as junior External Affairs Minister, to represent India internationally. When seventeen separate women accused him of sexual harassment or even molestation their charges should not have been ignored. Silence was the last thing I expected.

First, Mr. Modi has repeatedly expressed pride in the moral incorruptibility of his government. Surely he could see how the charges against Akbar dented that claim? In the circumstances the Prime Minister should have reassured his countrymen that he would investigate and establish the truth. Instead, he chose to ignore the matter, almost as if he was hoping it would disappear.

There was, however, a second reason why Mr. Modi’s silence was self-defeating. His is a government that has proclaimed Beti Bachao Beti Padhao as one of its key platforms. It boasts of its commitment to empowering women and it’s proud of its stand on the triple talaq issue. Wasn’t all of this compromised when women, who were teenagers at the time, accused Akbar of forcing himself upon them and the Prime Minister had nothing to say?

Most importantly of all, urban, middle-class, english-speaking India was appalled by the charges Akbar faced and his attitude of defiance. Was the Prime Minister unaware of this or unconcerned by it? Didn’t these hundreds of millions have a right to expect a statement of reassurance, a commitment of shared concern and a promise to put things right from the country’s Chief Executive? Instead, by failing to say or do anything, he disappointed them. Worse, he let himself down. No longer can we accept at face value his assertions of moral rectitude and upstanding behaviour. They now feel like pretentions or even fulminations.

Of course, as Prime Minister the onus on Mr. Modi was greater than on any other politician but that doesn’t excuse the long line of opposition leaders who also retreated into silence rather than speak about L’affaire Akbar. Rahul Gandhi tweeted in mere generic terms. He accused the Prime Minister of shielding rape-accused BJP legislators but could not bring himself to voice an opinion and take a stand on Akbar. Why? Was it that he could not think of anything to say?

What about the great women leaders of our time? Sonia Gandhi, Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee, Mehbooba Mufti and Sheila Dikshit kept their counsel to themselves. It’s as if L’affaire Akbar hadn’t happened or they could not see how it troubled their countrymen. Surely as women leaders they had a moral duty to speak? Were they embarrassed to do so? Or were they prisoners of indecision?

In fact, even opposition Chief Ministers were mum. Whether it’s Nitish Kumar or Naveen Patnaik, Chandrababu Naidu or Pinarayi Vijayan, Akhilesh Yadav or Chandrashekar Rao we didn’t hear a squeak. Did they really believe this is a private issue and not a national concern?

Why, when the country was agonized, were our top politicians deafeningly silent? Was this not strange behaviour from men and women whose careers depend upon their ability to sense the mood, articulate it and then soothe and calm the disturbed? It can’t be that they had no opinions on the matter. Everyone I know does. So, perhaps, their consciences did not prick and trouble them? But if that was the case it’s not just disillusioning, it’s deeply disturbing.

The sad truth is that in this instance Indian democracy and the Indian people have been betrayed by their politicians. We deserved better. But will this be remembered when next we get a chance to vote?