Picture a high-profile case on a matter that has captured the nation’s imagination. Irrespective of the truth, the case has to be decided on the basis of the evidence presented. Only the government-led prosecution knows whether the evidence is strong or weak. All opposition parties can observe is the assiduousness with which the prosecution pursues the case, and the final result. In response, they can initiate a mass movement against the government or accept the verdict with equanimity. In this game model, we focus on opposition parties other than the Congress.
The outcome of the trial is dependent on the strength of the evidence, and the assiduousness of the prosecution. For the government, a win would seem to be better than a loss, although a loss may allow the ruling party to seek the favour of one of the defendants. For the opposition, a loss for the government, especially one following a lackadaisical display by the prosecution, presents a dilemma. They could either celebrate it as a win for a fellow opposition party, or could denigrate it as an example of the government turning a blind eye to corruption.
We are obviously speaking of the 2G case in which the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court acquitted all the 17 accused. Can we infer the strength of the evidence available to the prosecutor based on the observed actions and outcomes?
The remarkable aspect of this case is the alleged shoddiness of the prosecution. Judge O.P. Saini noted that after initial enthusiasm, the prosecutors seemed to have become casual and unwilling to sign depositions. This period of casual behaviour covers the entire stint of the National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre. How do we explain the lethargy of the CBI?
In case the government’s best outcome is one in which it can successfully convict the defendants and continue to tom-tom its charges of corruption against the Congress, the game has a ‘separating equilibrium’, i.e. one in which the strength of the evidence can be inferred from the observed actions of the prosecution. An assiduous prosecution will be observed if, and only if, it is backed by strong evidence. With weak evidence, the prosecution would prefer to adopt a lethargic approach and appeal the verdict in a higher court in order to sustain the feeling that the defendants are, in fact, guilty. The likelihood of this equilibrium will be amplified if the non-Congress opposition parties give higher priority to opposition unity than to punishing the government for irresponsibility with regard to the prosecution, for then they would focus on the fact of acquittal rather than the quality of the trial.
For this equilibrium, it is necessary that the judge be reasonably impartial. If, for instance, the judge is likely to give a verdict in favour of the Congress even with strong evidence and a well-presented case, then there is a ‘pooling equilibrium’ in which the prosecution is lethargic irrespective of the strength of the evidence, hence preventing us from inferring the quality of the evidence from the actions of the prosecution. This is also true if the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) prefers to lose the case and woo the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). If the judge is highly tilted in favour of the BJP, there will be a pooling equilibrium with a high level of assiduousness.
My view is that the upside to the BJP from winning this case is far greater than the downside in terms of a missed opportunity to woo the DMK. It appears from the excerpts of the judgement that the judge has based his verdict on reasonable exasperation with the vacillation of the prosecution. Hence, I regard the verdict as a sign that the case evidence is weak and that the BJP decided to go slow in order to make the CBI the scapegoat.
This brings us to the opposition’s stance. Had it decided to oppose the government tooth and nail on its casual approach, we would have moved to a pooling equilibrium in which the BJP would have been forced to fight the case assiduously irrespective of the quality of the evidence. However, it is likely that the need for opposition unity before the 2019 general election is making the opposition pull its punches.
This stance appears to be premature. After the centralization of power under Indira Gandhi and the decentralization of power in the 1990s, Indian politics seems to have entered another phase of centralization under Narendra Modi. This requires a united response. However, in the absence of a credible leader and a coherent programmatic alternative, the campaign will not even achieve the electoral success of the erstwhile Janata Party, let alone provide stable governance. Issues like the sloppiness of the government in this case are opportunities for the creation of trustworthy voices within the opposition. It is time for another street-level movement.
Meanwhile, the task before the Congress is to take advantage of the fact that a regional actor can hope for greater power within a Congress-led coalition than in a BJP-led coalition, given the relative weakness of the Congress (provided there is some expectation of victory). The party needs to pare down its sense of self in proportion to its current circumstances in order to handle the aspirations of potential allies.
Beyond the cold calculus of game theory, the nation needs to know the truth behind the procedural irregularities in the allocation of telecom licences. One hopes the government will pull up its socks in the high court.
Rohit Prasad is a professor at MDI, Gurgaon, and author of Blood Red River. Game Sutra is a fortnightly column based on Game Theory.