Home / Opinion / Views /  The tragic game theory of our standoff over farm laws

Brinkmanship is a form of negotiation in which two parties present excessive demands from which they refuse to back down, bringing each to a situation of potential disaster. It is often triggered when an entity is faced with the prospect of a sizable loss of economic well-being or political power. In response, that party tries to propel the situation to the other extreme in order to reclaim its original situation or even better it. For instance, recently US President Donald Trump threatened not to sign a covid relief bill in response to waning support from Republican Congressmen. This move threatened long-term damage to the prospects of the Republican Party in response to a fatal blow to Trump’s desperate attempts to continue in office.

The current farmers’ movement in India is a response to three farm bills that aim to usher in an era of agricultural efficiency through consolidation of landholdings, investments in supply chain infrastructure, and disintermediation of the supply chain. However, there is no guarantee that existing agricultural landowners, especially in affluent states like Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat, will be better off under the new regime. Their prospects cannot be examined merely through the lens of commerce. A key provision of the new laws is that agricultural land can be used as loan collateral and seized in the event of a default. The potential loss of land is a big factor in the insecurities of farmers and their demand for a repeal of the laws.

A situation of brinkmanship is usually defused by face-saving compromises, which allow each party to claim it won. A famous example is the standoff between the US and the Soviet Union when the placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba by the Soviets brought the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust. The Soviet move was triggered by Moscow’s relatively weak traditional and nuclear strength. The situation was resolved with the Soviets moving out of Cuba and the US withdrawing missiles from Turkey. However, the recent episode between the US and North Korea stemming from a series of missile tests by Kim Jong-un does not seem to be amenable to any such resolution. Why?

When both entities in an episode of brinkmanship are large, a large set of mutually acceptable concessions is available. This is because the side for which a concession is being contemplated has far-flung interests and, therefore, can be accommodated in a number of ways. Further, the side making the concession has several alternative ways of achieving its strategic goals, and can afford to give up one of the alternatives without significant cost. However, when one entity is relatively small, the space for face-saving compromises that it can offer the larger entity is restricted. Hence, extreme positions are not amenable to any easy resolution. I call this the ‘paradox of asymmetric standoffs’.

While the farm protests seem to be finding resonance across states, they are facing off against an entity no less than the Government of India, apparently backed by global corporate interests. Therefore, space for viable solutions is more limited than it would have been if both the entities were of similar size and each held a multiplicity of strategic interests.

The tactical way out then seems to be for the government to attempt propping up the size of the agitation in order to make a compromise possible. For instance, there are large farmer groups in the country whose land may not be in the immediate crosshairs of the corporate sector on account of a lack of complementary infrastructure. They may be mollified with a promise of minimum support prices. However, even after all such attempts to divide the farmers’ movement have run their course, there will remain a core group that wields significant power and is unlikely to offer any face-saving compromise to the government.

Most commentators have made the size of the farm protest a métier for the appropriate government response, with larger size protests meriting more conciliatory responses. In contrast, game theory suggests that the government needs to be conciliatory not because the farmer movement is large, but because it is small.

And so there appear to be two possible end games. First, a repeal of laws, with the resultant loss of face being somewhat reduced by the fig leaf of Supreme Court intervention. The other is increasing frustration of the movement, resulting in pockets of armed resistance. Once this resistance breaks out, it could mean a sustained human tragedy, as seen in Punjab during the 1980s and early 1990s.

It is useful to remember that the record of corporate entry to mineral-rich areas or agricultural zones has generally not been encouraging for those living in these regions. When the concerned communities are politically weak, companies ride roughshod over them. But the protesting farmers are strong, financially and politically, and will need prior assurance that their interests will be protected.

Hence, ‘development before corporatization’ is the only approach that can work. Companies should be allowed to enter only after there is some evidence, in the form of producer companies and cooperatives, that local communities will be able to stand up to them. Even if examined in the heartless crucible of realpolitik alone, the content, timing and manner of the farm laws’ enactment was a provocation we could have done without.

Professor Sajal Ghosh and Rajnish Wadhera contributed to this article.

Rohit Prasad is professor at MDI Gurgaon

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