How Game Theory applies to upcoming Bihar elections

With our universe limited to Bihar Assembly elections, we will have to live with the fact that even with the stakes so high in a state that breeds intellect, we can only expect a case of ‘bounded rationality’ at best.

 |  9-minute read |   27-07-2020
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For the uninitiated, ‘Game Theory’ is a mathematical model that allows us to study strategic interaction among rational decision-makers. In simpler words, we can apply game theory to any multi-party interaction, wherein each party has multiple strategic choices and the reward against each choice is not determined in isolation, but by the combination of choices made by all the players involved. The rationality of the participants involved is a key factor in the conduction of a textbook ‘game’. As an example, in a ‘game’ of narratives, somehow all of us are aware that BJP is commonly found stronger on the nationalism agenda and somewhat weaker on regional issues.

Hence, a regional party challenging the BJP must weigh the payoffs of these two options by asking whether an outcome wherein you are able to prove your nationalism, is enough to get you in the lead or the outcome that you are proven anti-national, solely enough to derail your entire campaign? The positive outcome here is both — less likely and less fruitful — than the likelihood and the associated damages from a negative outcome. Hence a rational choice for a regional party would be to completely dodge all topics around nationalism and drag BJP out of its comfort zone into regional issues. Yet very few parties have realised and exhibited this basic rationality, despite being proven universally successful.

With our universe limited to Bihar Assembly elections, we will have to live with the fact that even with the stakes so high, in a state that breeds intellect, we can only expect a case of ‘bounded rationality’ at best. How can we forget that among the ‘players’ involved here, we also have a regional party that has consistently been getting more members from a single bloodline into the Parliament than it has managed to get elected into the Bihar Assembly in over a decade? We can laugh about it all we want, but in a nation where this party and its leadership is considered the smartest universally (even in the entire space-time continuum, some would argue), we would actually gain more by worrying about the ‘rationality’ of other ‘players’ involved.

main_pushpam-priya_a_072720022633.jpgThe dark-themed, all-English hoarding in the heart of Patna proclaiming a certain Pushpam Priya as a participant in the Bihar’s Chief Ministerial race. (Photo: ANI)

In times when you can’t even hold and kiss your own child without worrying about Covid-19, how can a whole election remain unimpacted? Covid-19 has impacted Bihar elections emotionally, physically and even virtually. It is undeniable that the event that announced the arrival of Bihar Assembly Elections 2020, was the hoisting of a dark-themed, all-English hoarding in the heart of Patna proclaiming a certain Pushpam Priya as a participant in the Bihar’s Chief Ministerial race. To her credit, she has been the only ‘player’ to have properly capitalised on the virtual space thereafter, and hence gain a significant presence in the campaign space here. Though the Plurals is an absolutely appropriate name to connect to the Bihari identity altogether, it is one thing to be conceptually right and then get carried away by the hero-worshipping culture, and another to actually sacrifice yourself to make your concept the hero. She can win seats if she can ensure her ensemble is referred to, more often with a ‘they’, than with a ‘her’. Because of all the attention she has been able to attract, she might be sharing meme-space with Tejpratap Yadav today. But if she stays for the long haul, she would do well to keep most of her ‘rationality’ intact.

That’s all the space the Plurals and the online space deserve in this context. Because no other players have even made a significant effort here other than the usual suspect — Pappu Yadav — whose campaign team is yet to be informed that the voters expect a little more from a politician’s online feed than subscribers of an average YouTuber. In terms of digital content, his only competition is Varun Pruthi — ever since Tejpratap Yadav was painfully separated from TikTok. Although none of the other players has surrendered here in the absolute sense, none of them has really figured out how to actually turn the extra screen time available with their voters into an opportunity. 

main_ljp_pti_072720105347.jpgWe have a regional party that has consistently been getting more members from a single bloodline into the Parliament than it has managed to get elected into the Bihar Assembly in over a decade. (Photo: PTI)

On the emotional side, history teaches us that emergencies such as the Covid-19 pandemic are generally followed by strong mandates and that mandate is usually only reserved for the one that projects unwavering strength and courage. It is common knowledge to political strategists and hence is not unheard of in politics to even manufacture emergencies in order to manufacture consent by eventually projecting an alpha image. Somehow, the incumbent leadership in Bihar seems totally unaware of the concept. Factually, our incumbent was perhaps the last to show his face to the people among all chief ministers and surprisingly the first to brandish the white flag when the Centre allowed states to bring their migrants back using road transport.

Without a calendar at your disposal, you would think Bihar was perhaps the one state that must be the furthest from an election or the leadership must be totally banking upon the failure of reverse migration to impact the poll significantly. We aren’t far enough from the polling day for the people to forget that the democratically chosen leader of state was basically MIA from the field of play during an international crisis or at least that this was the image that was successfully projected to them with absolutely no help from the opposition.

Perhaps the rationality behind this surrender comes from Amit Shah’s assurance that the NDA alliance is neither splitting nor looking for new leadership. If you read into the BJP’s priorities, it looks unlikely that Amit Shah is now regretting committing too much too soon. They have failed to invest in giving the state a face to their local leadership in decades of dominating presence. There was some hope while Nityanand Rai stuck around as its state unit’s president, but the party seems to have avoided banking on him for the job although an MoS appointment is not a demotion by any means. A party that is otherwise so rational and informed must have its reasons to choose to remain faceless for another five years.

main_nitish-kumar_pt_072720022210.jpgOur incumbent was perhaps the last to show his face to the people among all CMs and surprisingly the first to brandish the white flag when the Centre allowed states to bring their migrants back using road transport. (Photo: PTI)

A zero-sum game is a kind where the combined payoff of the game for all participants is constant. The payoff here is in the Assembly seats and hence it would be easy for participants to confuse it as a perfect zero-sum game with 243 assembly seats as the total available payoff with a few Rajya Sabha seats later becoming a bonus pay-off. Though it appears that simple on the surface, vote share and votes polled are not bounded that way.

NDA/Nitish is giving the voter every reason to stay at home and keep themselves from the pandemic as well save themselves the quandary. In which case, M+Y+AI might just be enough to win seats, even where it is not supposed to be. Where AI is obviously anti-incumbency, and you already know what M+Y is if you’ve come this far. About a year ago, Virender Singh Mast accumulated a record 4.69 lakh votes in Ballia, UP, only to win the seat by a margin of mere 15,519. He managed to win on the account that more of his supporters were sincere enough to step out to vote. For a party whose supporters have been notorious for getting complacent about converting their support into votes, BJP might be failing to recognise it’s adding up the wrong numbers. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the vote shares of NDA’s members in the seats they contested appeared such:

BJP: 56.5 per cent

LJP: 55.2 per cent

JD(U): 51.9 per cent

Its vote share dipped from 22.6 per cent in 2010 Assembly elections to 17.3 per cent in 2015 Assembly elections. This was pre-Covid and it had nothing to do with Nitish's government’s surrender in the battle against the virus. This is rather a testament to his falling popularity on account of his meek and almost comprehensive surrender against Japanese encephalitis, AK-47-wielding mafia and floodwaters in Patna. In his non-existent battle against Covid, he has continued and made his surrender complete and final.

Even as BJP and RJD remain the only two ‘players’ of might here, the RJD remains the only one to have brought the fight to the ‘game’. A grand digital rally, in the middle of a pandemic, is not a fight against anything but your own intent by making it the most questionable thing after the missing CM. It only gets worse when one of your senior leaders brandishes his priorities of fighting polls over fighting the pandemic and then you get your state office sealed with more than 70 functionaries infected.

In this ‘game’, the smaller players would be far better off announcing their alliances at the earliest and entering the playing field sooner. The longer they take to decide, the more they weaken the structure they’ll end up building. For RJD, it is a straight walk from here. The fewer mistakes they commit, the better are their chances of crossing that line. They have done the smart thing by calling for delaying Bihar polls. What remains for them is to realise the opportunities that come with an all-digital campaign and capitalise on it. The fewer RJD supporters people see on the ground, creating any nuisance, the lesser are the chances voters are reminded why RJD was dethroned in the first place. So far, RJD seems posed to remain Bihar’s single largest party unless the unthinkable happens and Nitish Kumar is shown the door from NDA. Even in that eventuality, it remains to be seen if he joins hands with RJD once again.

We can’t write any of these possibilities off for now, because we know that “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best”, thanks to the first German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck. Hence the ‘game’ remains dynamic and just as if to prove him right, Yashwant Sinha has stuck his neck out, out of nowhere. Bihar elections have a lot of ‘choices’ yet to be exercised and a lot remains to be seen, even though the prospects are not exactly mouthwatering for its people. All they want is for their leaders not to throw them under the bus in the race to glory even though they might be looking at a net negative outcome for themselves in this ‘zero-sum’.

Also Read: Why Nitish Kumar would fight neither pandemic, nor polls

Writer

Pranav Pratap Singh Pranav Pratap Singh @pranavmatraapps

The writer is a political consultant operating independently with his own firm in Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra.

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