6:28 pm - Tuesday November 3, 2015

Tit-for-tat with Pakistan: Game theory suggests what Modi did was right

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There was never any good reason for India to engage with Pakistan in the first place, because it is well-known that that country is only defined as “not-India”, and its army needs the raison d’etre of India-hatred to justify its existence. Many years ago, I pointed out in another article, that they would rather commit mutually assured suicide than live in peace with India.
Yet, on the off-chance that “jaw-jaw is better than war-war”, it was not a bad idea for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to make friendly overtures to Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif. Chanakya would approve: you have to try samam, danam, and bhedam first before you go for dandam. But it was never going to resolve anything, just like the 30-year-old ‘border talks’ with China. In both cases, while India may be earnest about a resolution, the others are not. Status quo suits them.
There is a fundamental question about why India comes to the negotiating table with Pakistan. It is not clear what India’s objective has been in all these years of palavering: is it to implement the Parliamentary resolution that all of Jammu & Kashmir is inalienably Indian and thus to claim all of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK)? Is it to make the Line of Control the official border? Is it to stop Pakistani terrorism? In fact I think it is none of the above: the talks were the end in themselves, not a means to achieve any end. India was talking because it was coerced by ‘world opinion’ (for which, read ‘American bullying’). Our unthinking bureaucrats had gotten accustomed to the idea that the “talks must go on”, regardless of whether there was any real progress.
Second, we have years of experience with Pakistani civilian rulers. They are merely masks for the real power centres in the country, the famous three A’s – Army, Allah and America. Because of their impotence and the fig-leaf of ‘democracy’, the civilian rulers have been even more rabid than the generals. Remember Zulfiqar Bhutto, who said “we will eat grass if that’s what it takes to acquire a nuclear weapon”? Or the shrill Benazir, inciting ethnic cleansing in J&K? Or the earlier incarnation of Nawaz Sharif, during which Kargil happened?
In addition, Nawaz Sharif 2.0 is on rather shaky ground these days. There have been murmurs in the media handmaidens of Nato (you know who they are) that perhaps Sharif’s time to go has come. Given former cricket-player Imran Khan’s possibly army-supported agitation against him, signs of yet another coup are in the air. That is a second good reason to not negotiate now.
A third reason is the Chinese habit of testing the patience (surely their acolytes in Pakistan have been taught this, along with the fine art of political theater) of their foes in their constant quest for capturing territory. The Chinese probe (as they are doing in Ladakh with incursions) to see what the reaction is. If there is none, they get bolder, and try more audacious land-grabs (“de l’audace, et encore de l’audace, et toujours de l’audace”). On the other hand, if there is retaliation (eg, someone drops a tactical nuke on them), they grin sheepishly (“vely solly”) and withdraw to their earlier positions.
In other words, so long as there is no pain to themselves, both China and Pakistan pursue the axiom, “What’s ours in ours; what’s yours is negotiable”, and try to nibble at the other guy’s territory. If serious pain is applied to their ample bottoms, both the Chinese Communists and the Pakistani Army will instantly become well-behaved. There are several ways in which pain can fruitfully be applied to Pakistani generals, but they are a bit extreme.
The final good reason is Game Theory. There is a standard meme in the discipline that goes by the name ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’. Without going into details, it concerns two entities that can a) co-operate or b) betray each other in a game. Thus X has a choice: cooperate with Y, or betray Y. However, X has to do this without knowing what Y is going to do. If both X and Y cooperate, both get a moderate payout. If, on the other hand, X betrays Y and Y cooperates, then X gets a big payout, and Y loses heavily. If both betray each other, they both lose moderately.
Foreign policy, especially between enemies such as India and Pakistan, can be modeled as a series of Prisoner’s Dilemma games. Thus, when Vajpayee extended his hand in friendship (a ‘cooperation’), the response was the Kandahar hijack (a ‘betrayal’). But Manmohan Singh’s next move was further weak-kneed co-operation. This is what Pakistan and mentor China have come to expect from India.
What is the best tactic in a Prisoner’s Dilemma? Academic simulations have run extended games with millions of repeated interactions. They tried many different strategies. But it turns out, counter-intuitively, that the very best strategy is also the simplest: ‘tit-for-tat’. That is, start by cooperating. Every time the foe cooperates, you cooperate in the next round. If the foe betrays, you betray in the next round. This turns out to be the winning tactic.
This is precisely what the Narendra Modi government has done, too. It started with cooperation, but in the face of perfidy (ie, encouragement of separatist fundamentalists in J&K), it took the right decision to follow the ‘tit-for-tat’, winning tactic against Pakistan. It is also a warning across the bows to China that this time, things are truly different. It ain’t business as usual, boys and girls. There’s a new kid in town, the good Narendrabhai.

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