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A chicken game in Chennai

A chicken game in Chennai
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First Published: Wed, Mar 09 2011. 08 40 PM IST
Updated: Wed, Mar 09 2011. 08 40 PM IST
In the end, it was M. Karunanidhi who blinked. The leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) made an assumption that turned out to be wrong. All along, he was playing a game that has been studied bygame theorists for long: the hawk-dove game, or a closely related one called “chicken”. Victory depends on observing the behaviour of the opposing player and choosing an appropriate strategy. And this is where Karunanidhi seems to have miscalculated.
In such games, the preferences of participants are simple: each wants to be aggressive (“hawk”) if its opponent is passive (“dove”), and passive if its opponent is aggressive. Careful study has shown that in games of such nature, equilibrium (or the continued existence of the game itself) always involves one player continuing to remain aggressive and the other backing down.
Yet, despite the DMK being the first to take the position of the hawk, the Congress didn’t play by the rules and take the position of the dove. Instead, it chose to play hawk too, placing the very game in peril. Congress chairperson Sonia Gandhi is believed to have conveyed this intent to DMK leaders on Monday (The Times of India reported it in a story on Wednesday). When she said, “I don’t care whether this government lives or goes,” it was a reflection of the party’s hawkish position.
So, what happened? After all, given the Congress’ recent travails—the problems in organizing the Commonwealth Games to the controversy over the selection of the chief vigilance commissioner (CVC)—the DMK may have believed that it would give in easily.
If that didn’t happen, it’s because for the Congress, its game with the DMK isn’t the only one it plays. So, replace the DMK with another player, the Trinamool Congress (TMC). By the time this game is played, the TMC is wiser for having watched how the Congress played its game with the DMK. If the Congress had played dove to the DMK’s hawk, the TMC would have taken an aggressive position while discussing the sharing of seats. The Congress simply could not afford to be a dove.
With multiple partners in the coalition, it does not pay to play that way. That is the point the DMK missed: the lead party of the coalition has to play the game repeatedly and not as a one-shot affair.
The Congress’ choice: strategic or something else? Tell us at views@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Mar 09 2011. 08 40 PM IST