As September ends, the election season is going to start in earnest. There are seven assembly elections next year. The most important of them is in Uttar Pradesh (UP) in March, just six months away.
It’s important not only because it is UP but also because beneath the surface there are quiet suggestions of another tussle, this time going on within the BJP between the chief minister and the party high command.
So a few days ago, during a discussion with some economists on the forthcoming election there, it quickly became clear that it provides a near-perfect fit for a well-known concept in game theory. This is the concept of ‘dominant strategy’.
A dominant strategy for a player is defined as the strategy that he or she will play regardless of what the other players are doing.
Thus in UP there are three possible strategies open to the BJP: community, caste and development. But for different players there the dominant strategy is different.
We have therefore seen the chief minister focusing on communities while the party high command does on castes. Development is common to both.
So far so good because this suggests that the high command and chief minister (CM) are on the same side.
But what if this is not necessarily the case? What if there is a sub-game being played in which, in order to maximise future gains to itself, each side--chief minister and prime minister--is competing internally to distribute the largest number of tickets?
There are 403 seats in the UP assembly which means a fair division would be 50:50. But that doesn’t fit in with the new high-command culture of the BJP which would insist on something like 80:20. No Prime Minister (PM) cannot afford to hand over a state to the CM.
This is where game theory provides a way of understanding what could happen eventually or where the equilibrium will be. It depends on whether the CM and the PM each have a ‘strictly dominant strategy’.
If so, there will be what’s called a ‘unique Nash equilibrium’ wherein one player will change his strategy only if the other changes his. This is precisely where the problem lies because there could be alternative outcomes that are better for both players. But because both have ‘strictly dominant strategies’, both end up being worse off.
This could well happen in the UP election.
Readers familiar with game theory will recognise this as the classic ‘Prisoner's Dilemma’, where neither side budges from his or her chosen strategy and both end up with bad outcomes--which in the case of the UP election means a loss of more seats than otherwise for the BJP, perhaps even as many as 100.
This happens because there is a conflict between group optimisation and individual optimisation.
Such an outcome would be disastrous for the high command in the presidential election next July because of the implications for the electoral college that elects the president. It will force the high command to seek the support of smaller parties who will extract their price.
And then there are the implications for the general election in 2024. The high command cannot be seen as having lost in UP. The party that does badly in UP, like the Congress did in 2004 and 2009, loses the initiative.
So what’s the best strategy for the two sides? How can they cooperate?
There are two possibilities in case there is cooperation, and one if there is no cooperation.
If they agree to cooperate either the CM gives in and agrees to be given 20 percent of the tickets, or the high command gives in and agrees to a 50:50 split.
The no-cooperation possibility is that the CM is shown the door as other chief ministers have been in the last six months.
We have to wait and see if it comes to that. It could, because high commands are getting rid of chief ministers. Since March, four have gone: three in the BJP and one recently in the Congress.
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