Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Pullback after Pulwama? Here’s what game theory suggests

India’s muscular riposte to Pakistan’s perfidy post-Uri, post-Pulwama has underpinnings in game theory. After the jihadi attack on the Uri army camp in 2016, India launched its “surgical strike". Last month, after a suicide bomber rammed a Central Reserve Police Force convoy and killed 40 jawans, the Indian Air Force struck a terrorist camp in Balakot deep inside Pakistan, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The exact number of fatalities in the strike does not matter as much as the message of retaliation embedded in it.

The question is, will tit for tat work in the Pakistani context? It is too early to say, and we should not be unaware of the nuclear angle to this confrontation, but game theory suggests that it should work better than any other strategy we have followed in the past. Strategies that involve turning the other cheek in response to a provocation—or responding to attacks with mere bluster—have not prompted even small changes in Pakistani behaviour. But if tit for tat is a consistent policy for India, the chances are it will deliver better results.

Tit for tat as an effective strategy originated in the 1980s when Robert Axelrod, an American political scientist and professor at the University of Michigan, held two tournaments to arrive at tentative conclusions. He wanted to check which strategy enables two rivals to choose cooperation over competition. The tournaments themselves were based on the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma situation, where two prisoners, held incommunicado separately, are offered deals to squeal on each other, with the one squealing getting a lighter sentence than the other. The optimum strategy for both prisoners is not to squeal, so that both get off lightly.

In Axelrod’s first tournament, the runaway winner was tit for tat, a strategy suggested by Ukraine-born American mathematical psychologist Anatol Rapoport. In tit for tat, each player mirrors the strategy of his rival; if he tries to hurt, you do, too; if he tries to cooperate, you do the same. Axelrod tried another tournament, where again the simple and easily understood tit-for-tat strategy scored over more sophisticated strategies. Later, Axelrod even tried tit for two tats, where you give your opponent one more chance to play fair after he cheats once, and found that this too did not deliver as good results as tit for tat, an eye for an eye. Mirroring your opponent worked best.

In the India-Pakistan context, India has been following the strategy of restraint, even non-retaliation. Under Narendra Modi, we have seen a variation of the tit-for-two-tats strategy. After the Pathankot air force station attack by the Jaish-e-Mohammed, we tried to get Pakistani cooperation in identifying who the attackers were. It was only after Uri followed that we retaliated with the surgical strike. Earlier, under the United Progressive Alliance regime, we were okay with even a tit-for-several-tats non-strategy, which failed miserably in getting Pakistan to behave better. The only lesson Pakistan learnt from our tepid response was that we have a high threshold for pain and punishment, and thus their “death-by-a-thousand-cuts" plan was working. Under Modi, this strategy is being reworked to become a true tit for tat, and if we persist with this over the long term, it should improve Pakistan’s behaviour.

There are two rules that all moral philosophers love. One is called the Golden Rule, where we do unto others what we want done unto us; the corollary, called the Silver Rule, is to not do unto others what we don’t want others to do unto us. The third is tit for tat, also called the Bronze Rule. M.K. Gandhi can be called a votary of the first two rules but not the third. His belief was an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth would leave the whole world blind and toothless.

He was wrong for a simple reason. While in the early stages of combat an eye for an eye will indeed leave a lot of people blind, over time both rivals will learn to provide better protection for their eyes in combat, and as injuries reduce, both sides will realize the futility of trying to damage the opponent’s eye. Gandhi got his game theory all wrong since he viewed the problem purely from a moral angle.

If we accept tit for tat as a more moral and workable strategy in the long run, clearly India needs to deploy it consistently in both directions—retaliation and cooperation. Every Pakistani bid to cheat and injure us must be followed with a retaliatory strike of some kind; every good deed must be followed by reciprocation in some way. So, once the border shelling and killing stops, if Pakistan offers an olive branch, we should tentatively take it. If Pakistan rewards us with another jihadi attack, we should plug them in the eye where it hurts. If they promote separatists in Kashmir, we should do so in Balochistan, Sind or Gilgit-Baltistan. Tit for tat, if it is to remain below the nuclear threshold, must thus also explore Indian use of non-state actors and economic pressures.

The lesson to learn from game theory is that consistency in policy is vital to get the message across. Tit for tat will work as long as it is consistent across governments. No matter what happens in the 2019 general elections, the winner should accept the logic of tit for tat. Giving it up for meaningless talks will mean loss of all the gains made so far from the surgical strike and Balakot.

R. Jagannathan is editorial director, ‘Swarajya’ magazine.

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