As the bar for discourse in India’s political arena keeps getting lower and lower, the latest victim of the mudslinging Olympics is Atishi Marlena of AAP. Atishi, who garnered a lot of popular support for her exemplary work with Delhi’s schools, is no stranger to political shenanigans. But the virulent nature of the latest attack, this time in the form of a derogatory pamphlet, has clearly taken her by surprise. The pamphlet, AAP alleges, was distributed by Gautam Gambhir, her rival in the East Delhi constituency.  In the midst of the emotional turmoil, the real tragedy might be how she and her party got played.

There is a popular story (likely apocryphal) that recounts an incident during the US senate election in 1948 between Lydon Johnson and Coke Stevenson. Johnson was lagging behind in the polls and it was becoming clear that something drastic had to be done. In a move that would seem shocking even by today’s low standards, Johnson suggested leaking a rumor about his opponent, who among other things, was a former pig farmer. The rumor? Simple: Stevenson was fond of fornicating with his pigs. Johnson’s campaign manager balked at the suggestion and replied that they couldn’t do that as it was clearly not true. To which Johnson shot back- “Of course its not! But let’s make the bastard deny it.”

The same strategy was employed by opponents of Barack Obama who questioned his citizenship in 2008 by spreading an email titled “Who is Barack Obama?”. In response, Obama’s campaign created a page on his website called “Fight The Smears” which featured a scan of his birth certificate. Seemed like an appropriate response. Didn’t quite work out though. A poll conducted a year into the “Fight the Smears” campaign highlighted this when it found that 24 percent of Americans and 58 percent of Republicans were unsure if Barack Obama was born in the U.S. The birth certificate only added fuel to the fire even as late as 2011 when, then GOP front runner, Donald Trump began to stoke the same rumors as a part of his campaign. Once again, Obama responded with documentary proof, this time, by releasing his “long form” birth certificate. Only now opponents claimed that the document had “embedded layers” which to them, was evidence of tampering. Every step Obama took, every piece of evidence he presented, only served to “prove” to his opponents that he had something to hide. Even today, 11 years later, “Obama is a Kenyan!” is the battle cry of many a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. It would not come as any surprise if that very document becomes a flag that Trump supporters rally around in 2020.

What Obama failed to realize—and what Atishi would do well to learn—is the idea that truth is of no consequence. If global politics over the last few years have proven anything, it is that no amount of evidence is going to change the mind of a group that has decided to believe a lie. Especially if it helps their cause. With every step AAP has taken, they have essentially weakened their position and strengthened their opponents. Now, Gautam Gambhir is the victim. In the eyes of AAP’s opponents, Gambhir is merely another target of its “drama” politics. A sentiment that has dogged AAP’s heels ever since its leaders made a name for themselves by holding protests and “dharnas” (to say nothing of incidents like former party member Ashutosh Gupta weeping inconsolably on national TV).

(Image by: ANI)

The fact is that there is no way anyone can attribute the letter to Gautam Gambhir/BJP. And he is well within his rights to say that the burden of proof lies on Atishi instead. And with every step, every tweet, every statement and each iota of energy they spend in denying ridiculous rumors, AAP forfeits hard-won ground. This is best illustrated by a tweet by Gautam Gambhir, “My Challenge no.2 @ArvindKejriwal @AtishiAAP I declare that if it’s proven that I did it, I will withdraw my candidature right now. If not, will u quit politics?”

Talk about a reversal. Regardless of how one feels about Gambhir’s credentials, this was a bouncer that he hit out of the park. Before this controversy began, even staunch BJP supporters were doubtful about Gambhir’s candidature. He went in with literally nothing to lose. A lackluster cricketer and a joke of a candidate is now quickly becoming the poster boy for the BJP’s campaign in Delhi. And all it took was a few lies. The brilliance of the move is this: Gambhir needn’t have been involved in any way for it to work. This could have easily been done without his knowing. I doubt he ever saw the pamphlet before it hit the news. At this point, the BJP’s propaganda machine is too big, too powerful, to consult small fry like him.

All this has done is “prove” to AAP’s opponents that the party is capable of nothing but “drama” or to use the more colloquial term, “Tamasha”. Just like the DNC’s decision to publish Obama’s birth certificate only led to further rumors of “document tampering”, AAP’s press conferences and responses have eroded the good will garnered by Atishi’s stellar work. In the eyes of their opponents, Atishi (much like Ashutosh) sheds crocodile tears and poor innocent Gautam has to defend his honor. AAP’s biggest mistake was to even so much as acknowledge the pamphlet. It is apparent to anyone with even a sliver of sense that this was written by someone whose intent was to simply malign. The pamphlet does not contain even a pretense of factuality. Were the statements in it true? Of course not. But they made her deny it. It was bait. And AAP bit down hard.

Truth is of no consequence when the rumor has you hook, line and sinker. The BJP understands this perfectly. It may be the one thing that they do exceedingly well, i.e., lie and get their legions of blind followers to believe it. If truth, honesty, character and credentials were taken into account, there is no contest between Atishi Marlena and Gautam Gambhir. The former is a Delhi University topper, Chevening scholarship recipient and a Rhodes Scholar who studied at Oxford. In her role as an Advisor to the Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi, she has almost single-handedly changed the infrastructure of Delhi’s schools. Gambhir on the other hand, is (at best) a mediocre cricketer with no political experience and zero achievements in the field of education. A man whose most decisive move so far, has been to shy away from a challenge of a public debate with his opponent.

Let me say this again: The truth is of no consequence. Not anymore. Honesty was once a winning tactic in the time of the Mahatma, but the rules in Modi’s India are quintessentially Machiavellian. Being truthful is not how one wins this game.

Bring on the pigs.