With the release of a sex tape, the nuclear option (or, to use an ancient Sanskrit term for hydrogen bomb, the brahmastra) seems to have been unleashed against Hardik Patel. It’s true we don’t know who was responsible for filming and leaking the video, but we do know who stands to profit from it, which is often a good indicator of who could be behind it.

According to the timestamp on the video, the weapon was ready in May 2017. After that, it was a matter of deciding if and when to use it. As Patel grew closer to the Congress, as Rahul Gandhi unexpectedly proved an effective campaigner in Gujarat, and as the polls in Narendra Modi’s home state narrowed, the decision to launch the missile seems to finally have been taken.

There’s little doubt it is Hardik Patel in the tape, and no doubt at all that the sex is consensual. The young man obviously had an inkling of what was to come, warning his followers about the impending leak. When the moment arrived, he responded with a combination of denial and defiance, insisting the video was doctored while adding he was an unmarried male and not impotent. His first contention is false. The tape is not faked. It is virtually impossible to convincingly fit the head of one person onto the body of another throughout a long video recording. It is certainly impossible without a budget equivalent to that of a Hollywood blockbuster.

I wish Patel had been more forthright, but I can see why he wasn’t. Our culture’s hypocrisy stands naked in the wake of the video’s release. News channels covering a situation that involves a perfectly legal act and a perfectly illegal one have focussed on the first and ignored the second. There is little outrage, outside of the usual liberal circles, at a consensual sexual act in a private space being recorded and disseminated for political ends.

Difficult to predict

The problem with such bombshells is that the damage is difficult to predict. A change of wind can easily drive the fallout in the direction of the perpetrators. That is why political parties use the nuclear option sparingly against their strongest opponents. Instead, they target upstarts like the Aam Aadmi Party or Hardik Patel.

In politics, as in war, a decision to launch an all-out assault can be disastrous. In April 1526, the Timurid ruler Babur led his forces against Delhi’s sultan Ibrahim Lodi. Instead of using home advantage, Lodi, overconfident in the superior numbers at his command, attacked at a spot carefully chosen by his canny adversary. It was the greatest and last mistake Lodi would make.

Conversely, in May 1940, German Panzers overwhelmed allied forces and rampaged through France, trapping British and French forces on the beach of Dunkirk. A film by Christopher Nolan released earlier this year provided an imaginative reconstruction of soldiers’ experiences on that beach. What the film didn’t tell us was that Germany’s armour could have completed the rout, but the tanks were held back for three whole days by Hitler and German generals afraid of spreading their resources too thinly. It proved one of the most disastrous decisions of the Second World War, allowing a heroic rescue that evacuated over 3,00,000 Allied soldiers to England.

Wrong calculations

After coming to power in 2004, the Congress could have used the all-out assault, the nuclear option, against Narendra Modi. Had the ruling party employed all resources at its disposal, I have no doubt it could have unearthed enough evidence to charge Modi in connection with the 2002 riots. Consider the government we have now. It is widely acknowledged that no decision is taken without the prime minister’s consent. The prime minister’s office produces all policy, while ministers justify their existence by responding to supplicatory tweets. It was ever thus under Modi. The idea that ministers in his state government colluded with police officers to maximise Muslim casualties in 2002 without his knowledge is unthinkable.

Yet, Sonia Gandhi decided to hold back, afraid of the fallout in lost Hindu votes. She probably calculated that the riots had hobbled Modi, that he’d never make the transition to the national stage after such a catastrophe. He was too powerful to nuke without suffering serious damage, and too weakened to pose a serious national threat. If that was her analysis, I can’t fault it, for the idea of Modi as the nation’s leader seemed inconceivable to many commentators, myself included. The Congress treated Modi much as it had treated Bal Thackeray, and paid a terrible price.

The current ruling party obviously believes it can attack Hardik Patel in the most despicable manner without paying a high price. I agree with that assessment. But I was wrong about Modi, and maybe I’m wrong about Patel. It’s possible that, in the years ahead, the BJP will end up ruing its underhand assault on this young Gujarati politician. If one man can attain the most powerful position in India after overseeing or ignoring the slaughter of hundreds of innocent citizens, I hope another will transcend the embarrassment of an illegally procured recording of a legal, consensual, pleasurable act.