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India’s #MeToo Manthan: PM Modi Must Help Drive Change

The #MeToo movement is not about legality but about influencing change and demonstrating support

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The one thing on which there would be a consensus in our argumentative, and highly polarized political firmament, is the fact that PM Modi is a change agent. He has shaken things up in the national discourse and, whilst the jury is out on the immediate impact, there can be no argument on the massive disruption he has created in the thinking at a national level: from Swachh Bharat, demonetization, crackdown on black money, Jandhan, IBC to triple talaq and the move towards a uniform civil code – the list goes on. 

He now has a similar chance to help drive large-scale change for women’s safety in the workplace. As is obvious from the #MeToo revelations, sexual harassment is all-pervading – this really reflects on the thinking of our nation with respect to gender equality and respect for women as seen through the prism of our highly patriarchal society. Such things will take a couple of generations to resolve at the core as it needs education reforms on a fundamental level, but a firm beginning can be made now.

MJ Akbar’s reputation precedes itself in this regard for many years, and it would seem from the wide-ranging revelations that this was indeed true. He is clearly the most high profile individual who has been named, though by no means one with the most heinous of crimes as alleged. Making examples of the high and mighty is a necessary ingredient in driving sustainable transformation. The PM should use this opportunity to do precisely this by making an example of MJ Akbar. Thankfully, he is a political lightweight too. Though many more ministers have continued in governments run by all dispensations in the past with allegations of far more horrific crimes, PM Modi must demonstrate that he is substantively different in matters of public accountability. This will also demonstrate that in public life it is not about legality but perceptions – a position which is radically different from what all political parties have taken whenever exposes of their ilk have been made in the public domain. Contrast this with well-governed democracies like the UK or the US where even a hint of impropriety was enough to force ministers out of government.

What we are witnessing is a radical metamorphosis of mindset which is as revolutionary, or perhaps even bigger, than what was witnessed during India’s freedom movement where we morphed into the self-belief of being able to independently chart our own destiny. PM Modi would be wise to tap into this movement and identify himself with the wave of empathy which millions feel towards these wronged women. This is not only his “dharma” but will also prove to be politically expedient in a time when he needs to re-engage urgently with the alienated middle class on a massive scale. He must resist the temptation of the majority in positions of power who insist on the legal redressal route for these women who have had the courage to speak out……that, as is well known, is a non starter due to various reasons except maybe for the rape allegations by Vinta Nanda against  Alok Nath or Tanushree Dutta’s case.

His decisive action against MJ Akbar would also help in giving a clear message of support across the hinterland – one of his prime constituencies - where sexually exploited women do not have the privilege of access to Twitter. 

The #MeToo movement is not about legality but about influencing change and demonstrating support. Change is apparent in the attitude of women albeit, at the moment, restricted to the educated middle class. But will men’s attitude change too? This won’t happen if some of the high and mighty get off easily and, more importantly, those in decision-making capacity are not seen to be vigorously supporting the need to change. That is the leadership role which must be demonstrated by both the political and business leaders including highly regarded celebrities. 

As a father of two daughters on the verge of entering the workplace, the best outcome of the #MeToo movement would be a large-scale crusade to change our collective, sickening mindset driven by age-old, societal conditioning that sexual harassment is a gender-based perk ordained to men, and, therefore “chalta hai”. Boys will be boys after all!  If this transformation is driven from the highest level by a charismatic leader like PM Modi it would help provide momentum to the arduous process of bringing about lasting impact. Else it will dissipate into one more instance of outright scandalous, salacious, gossipy reporting and hyperventilating prime time fervor on national TV with no tangible results.

For this larger good he has to sacrifice MJ Akbar…..and seen to be decisive. Soon.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Prabal Basu Roy

The author is a Sloan fellow of the London Business School and a chartered accountant. He has previously been a director/ Group CFO in various companies. He now manages a PE fund and advises startups / corporates.

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