The game of nerves that Sinha and his party have been playing over who snaps ties first is finally headed for a climax
Imagine a couple at loggerheads with each other. Both are committed to the marriage but want to bend their partner to their will. Sounds familiar? We’ve seen such a situation several times in this column under the description of “brinkmanship". Trade negotiations between the US and China are an example. Now let’s look at a variation, a sly one at that. One of the partners, say the husband, is secretly in a relationship outside the marriage and is looking for a pretext to break the marriage. This variation was used to analyse the exit of Nitish Kumar from the mahagathbandhan and was alluded to as a situation of pseudo-brinkmanship.
Now let us add the final layer to this model. Let us assume that the wife discovers the husband is cheating on her. Now, she has a choice of granting a divorce or dragging on the relationship. If she grants the divorce, the husband gets exactly what he wants. Given the hatred she harbours towards him after discovering his affair, this is the worst outcome for the wife. If the wife refuses to grant the divorce, the husband will have to pull the plug on the marriage, for his lover happens to be the impatient type. Given his timid nature, he does not want to do that. How will this situation play out? What relevance does this have for Shatrughan Sinha and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)?
Sinha, the BJP MP from Patna, had been making his displeasure with the BJP top leadership amply clear ever since Modi outsmarted his mentor, L. K. Advani, to seize control of the party. The BJP, contrary to its image as a dictatorial party, largely ignored Sinha. Only recently has news emerged that it is likely to field Ravi Shankar Prasad, not the voluble Sinha, from Patna Sahib. What were the strategic considerations at play?
A precipitous expulsion of Sinha could have made him a martyr and impacted the BJP’s prospects in Bihar where Sinha is widely idolized as the Bihari babu who made it big in Bollywood. On the other hand, letting him get away would set an unhealthy precedent. If the BJP chose to ignore Sinha’s outbursts, Sinha could either exit the party himself or bide his time. However, every passing minute would have increased the impatience of his “lover", the mahagathbandhan.
An additional twist in the political tale stems from the fact that there was an election on the cards. Prior to the election, there was the issue of ticket distribution. The BJP could either have chosen to field Sinha from his current seat, Patna Sahib, or not. If it did not, Sinha could choose to fight as a part of the mahagathbandhan or as an independent. Equally important was the timing of the decision. The BJP could wait till the last minute to make its decision known. Sinha had declared he would leave the party only if the “high command" asked for his resignation. However, with every passing day, Sinha’s effectiveness in the 2019 election would diminish as he would be seen as a purveyor of empty rhetoric. Under the circumstances, it seems as if he has been outsmarted by his party.
Yet, there was another important consideration at play that warranted Sinha’s holding on to his BJP membership. As the Grand Old Man of Indian politics, Sharad Pawar, recently said, “I don’t think that Narendra Modi will become PM again as the BJP will not get the required number in the elections. However, the BJP may emerge as the single largest party which cannot form the government without the support of other political parties."
Sinha may have been playing his cards with this possibility in mind. Given the uncertain prospects of the BJP in Bihar and at the national level, it was possible that the BJP may not have liked to see Sinha as part of the opposition camp. Sinha may have believed that the compulsions of the BJP would have allowed him to have his cake and eat it too. If the BJP retained power but with vastly reduced powers for Modi and Shah, he would be in pole position in the new government.
Even if the BJP was planning to drop him, the long span of the election worked in his favour. The election for Patna Sahib will be held on 19 May. The BJP had to announce its list of candidates by mid-March. Hence, Sinha had enough time to mount an offensive before 19 May in case he was dropped.
Thus, the play of the game has so far reflected rational play by both Sinha and the BJP. The BJP minimized Sinha’s effectiveness as much as it could by delaying the fait accompli as much as possible, and Sinha waited secure in the knowledge that he would have enough time after the BJP revealed its hand to present his case to the people. This approach also allowed him to punch above his weight, play the martyr card, and leave open the possibility that he could stay within the BJP and lead the fight against the top leadership after the election. The question is whether Sinha will fight as an independent candidate supported by the mahagathbandhan, or join one of the parties in the mahagathbandhan. He would like the former, but unless he can play the mahagathbandhan parties against each other, he will most likely have to commit to a party.
Time alone will tell if Sinha will reprise one of his famous dialogues and forge ammunition from the ashes of his exit to become a Vishwanath.
Rohit Prasad is a professor at MDI, Gurgaon. Game Sutra is a fortnightly column based on game theory.