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Deciphering India’s consummate chameleon

LiveMint logoLiveMint 09-08-2017 Rohit Prasad

Continuing with the trend of questionable political judgement, best exemplified by the decision to join hands with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has openly declared that there is no challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the 2019 general election. This gives fresh grist to rumour mills rife with speculation that his decision to jettison the opposition was driven by cold political calculation rather than moral revulsion at Lalu Prasad’s shenanigans. But could this hindsight have been deduced from the events leading up to the astonishing realignment?

Both possible avatars of Kumar—one that was committed to the mahagathbandhan and was using threats to clip Prasad’s wings, and the other that was using corruption as a pretext to flee a sinking ship—can be modelled by an almost identical game theoretic model in which Kumar begins by either issuing an ultimatum to Prasad’s son, the former Bihar deputy chief minister Tejaswi Yadav, or choosing to stay silent. In case an ultimatum is issued, Prasad can either accede or defy. In case he defies, an irrevocable split would be engineered.

If Kumar is genuinely interested in saving the coalition, then he would rank the situation in which Yadav accedes and the coalition is preserved as his best outcome and the situation in which Yadav defies and the coalition breaks, as his worst. This is the traditional game of brinkmanship most commonly applied to the context of nuclear deterrence. On the other hand, if he wants to break the coalition, his pay-offs would be reversed. This can be called a game of one-sided pseudo-brinkmanship. The status quo in which no threat is issued is the second best outcome for both avatars.

Either avatar of Kumar must take into account the possible stances of Yadav—pliable or hardline. A pliable Yadav would prefer to capitulate rather than risk the coalition while a hardline Yadav would defy Kumar and force him to issue a dismissal. Kumar would not know with certainty which version he is up against.

The two avatars of Kumar would adopt different threat strategies to maximize their payoffs. A “committed Kumar”, would worry about the prospect of facing a hardline Yadav, and would not want to escalate the threat perception beyond a point, because then the scenario of a breakup is likely to come to pass. At the same time, the aim is to make the threat perception high enough so that the pliable avatar of adversary would capitulate.

A “scheming Kumar” would be concerned about the pliable version of his adversary and would not want to raise the threat perception too high because the possible capitulation of the pliable version would prevent the breakup from happening. Unlike the committed avatar, a scheming Kumar has no problems with the prospect of a hardline adversary who would engineer the desired breakup at the slightest provocation.

The difference in the strategic motivations of the two avatars of Kumar would lead to different approaches to the process of threat issuance. For a committed Kumar, a high probability of Yadav being a hardliner would make the level of the threat required to be effective against the pliable version too high for Kumar’s own liking. Therefore in this situation, Kumar would choose not to enter into the game of brinkmanship at all.

On the other hand, the optimal threat strategy of a scheming Kumar is independent of the exact probability of Yadav being hardline or pliable and is driven by one consideration only—that it should be so weak that even the pliable avatar of adversary will not accede.

The threat, though weak, serves three purposes. First, it provides the excuse needed to trigger a breakup. Second, it lulls the adversary into a notion that a game of brinkmanship is being played when in fact a breakup is being plotted. Third, it increases bargaining power with the future ally. Therefore, while Kumar should avoid brinkmanship when faced with a hardliner, there is no situation in which a scheming Kumar should not enter into the game of pseudo-brinkmanship.

A consideration of the actual chain of events show that following the initiation of proceedings by the Central Bureau of Investigation against the Prasad family, Kumar issued a gradually escalating series of threats ending with an ultimatum that if Yadav did not resign before the monsoon session of the Bihar vidhan sabha, he would tender his resignation. Therefore one cannot unequivocally classify him as a schemer (who would issue only muted threats), unless he was muting his threats in private conversations with Yadav and Congress chief Rahul Gandhi while projecting an unyielding public face to create a false sense of security. Nor can one call him committed as there were clear signs that he was up against a hardliner and should have been trying to engineer a face-saving compromise.

The stand of Kumar’s supporters would be that he wanted to continue the alliance if Yadav were pliable, but not if he chose to remain unbending in the face of corruption charges. However, his new cabinet in which 22 of 29 ministers have criminal charges, raises a question mark on his motives.

If other members of the opposition knew they were up against pseudo-brinkmanship, then they should have been making a series of public concessions to cut off Kumar’s escape routes. The case of Kumar, then, is not just that of a “goodly apple rotten at the heart”, but of a wilted blossom, hanging on a bush entirely devastated by blight. Understanding the causes of opposition disarray is more important than wistful ditties for what might have been.

Rohit Prasad is a professor at MDI, Gurgaon, and author of Blood Red River. Game Sutra is a fortnightly column based on game theory.

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