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The hapless fate of an alleged spy

LiveMint logoLiveMint 19-04-2017 Rohit Prasad

The world’s second oldest profession is in the news these days, which is strange given the obscurity usually attending people accused of spying, whether they are espionage assets or not. For instance, do you even know about Ravindra Kaushik, a deep-cover agent who infiltrated the Pakistani army and died in a Pakistani prison 18 years later?

To understand the sad state of affairs, think of a situation in which two countries have captured each other’s alleged spies. Each country has to simultaneously decide whether to defend its spy or to abandon him (defence usually involves claiming the spy is innocent, except in rare cases). Each country’s incentives are such that they will defend their spy only if the other country does so too. If the other country abandons their spy, then each country would do the same. Further, both countries prefer the situation of mutual abandonment of spies to that of mutual defence. This is because international espionage, by and large, operates outside the purview of international law, and the countries would prefer that to continue.

The game described above has the structure of an “assurance game” where there are two equilibria—one in which both countries defend, and the other in which both countries abandon their spies. Since both countries get higher pay-offs in the equilibrium where they abandon their spies, that is the equilibrium we expect to see in the real world. This, indeed, is the pitiable situation many spies find themselves in, a fact being highlighted by the Jammu Ex-Sleuths Association, led by ex-spy Vinod Sawhney. Then, from India’s agitation over Kulbhushan Jadhav’s fate, can we conclude he really wasn’t a spy?

Although the details in such cases are always hazy, a brief timeline of events may be helpful. Jadhav, formerly an officer in the Indian Navy, was apprehended by Pakistan in March 2016 and accused of fomenting trouble in Balochistan. He was tried by a military court of Pakistan over the last three-four months. The Indian government was denied consular access to him. The military court sentenced Jadhav to death. He has 60 days to appeal to the Supreme Court and, in case the verdict is upheld, an option for a mercy petition to the president of Pakistan. Four days before the death sentence was pronounced, a Pakistani colonel, Muhammad Habib Zahir, went missing from Nepal. In the past week, three more RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) agents have reportedly been picked up in Pakistan.

The stand-off between India and Pakistan can’t be understood using the assurance game as the two countries have different incentives. India would like to keep things quiet, as they have not captured an agent working in Kashmir, a red flag for international observers, but one operating in the Baloch-Iran area. On the other hand, Pakistan’s main motive is to establish moral equivalence with India by proving that India meddles in their country.

If India is indeed behind the disappearance of Zahir and if it chooses to admit that, things could get interesting. This situation can then be modelled as a game in which India and Pakistan have to simultaneously choose between exaggerating the transgressions of the captured spy, or underplaying them. No matter what India does, Pakistan would prefer to exaggerate and amplify the supposed transgressions of Jadhav, whether or not he is guilty. Given this stance, India would also exaggerate its accusations against the Pakistani spy. This explains the current state of affairs where both countries are going hammer and tongs against each other’s alleged spies: a wonderful outcome for Pakistan (second only to a situation in which they go all the way and India keeps silent) but not very pleasant for India.

Things change when we model the interaction not as a simultaneous game but as a sequential game. While the outcome in both the simultaneous and sequential games is the same (both countries will exaggerate their accusations), in the sequential game in which Pakistan catches and accuses the spy first, India’s subsequent accusations appear to be motivated by Pakistan’s stance, and hence are less credible. If India moves first, then the equilibrium pay-offs are similar to the pay-offs in the simultaneous game—disadvantageous to India but less so.

Thinking about the interaction as a sequential game helps us to understand an important aspect of the current pattern of claims and counter-claims. The alleged Pakistani spy was captured four days before the military court passed the death sentence against Commander Jadhav for his alleged misdemeanours. While India claims that the death sentence was in retaliation for the capture of Zahir, Pakistan asserts that India had come to know of the impending death sentence and responded to that knowledge by arresting Zahir. In other words, each country is trying to claim it was the first mover. One will never know which of these claims is true, but the very short gap of time between the capture of Zahir and the sentencing of Jadhav offers some clues.

Overall, however, India’s response should be guided by its understanding of whether the moral equivalence that Pakistan seeks to establish truly exists or not. The general public in India and the international community is convinced that Pakistan’s interference in Kashmir is far deeper, more damaging, and of much longer duration than India’s activities in Balochistan. If this is indeed the case, India need not take Pakistan’s claims of moral equivalence too seriously.

But the India-Pakistan relationship, a family feud if there ever was one, never follows the logic of cold rationality. One expects more theatrics in the days ahead.

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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