The May 2018 state legislative assembly election in Karnataka (India) reveals interesting applications of Game Theory. The drama that unfolded offers insightful lessons for strategists.

Setting up the game 

A week before the election, Sonia Gandhi anticipated that Congress might not win an outright victory. She requested Sitaram Yechury, the Communist Leader, to reach out to Deve Gowda, the JD(S) supremo. Yechury reminded Gowda how Congress support had been instrumental in he becoming the Prime Minister of India in 1996. He emphasised their mutual interest in stopping the BJP juggernaut in Karnataka.

Deve Gowda, the wily politician, laid down two conditions: his son Kumaraswamy would be the chief minister, and he would speak with Sonia, not Rahul Gandhi. He had been unhappy with Rahul for alleging that JD(S) had had a secret pact with BJP.

Recognising his potential advantage as kingmaker he leveraged his Added Value, as we say in Game Theory.

As vote counting progressed and a fractured mandate looked imminent, Sonia asked senior Congressman Ghulam Nabi Azad to meet Danish Ali, known as eyes and ears of Deve Gowda. She also asked Yechury to mollify Gowda. But to seal the pact she called the JD(S) patriarch personally on May 15, before final results were declared.

Pay me to play 

Gowda exploited his Added Value once more. He asked for categorical assurance that the coalition would last the full five-year term. Sonia agreed. It was more important to keep BJP out of Karnataka and lay the foundations of a countrywide anti-BJP front for the 2019 parliamentary elections.

She played what is termed a strategic move in Game Theory. A strategic move, in this case a promise, limits the choices available to opponents and creates advantage for the player herself.

The Art of the Long View 

What about BJP’s strategy? To appreciate it one must go back in time, long before the recent game was played out.

In 2006-07 JD(S) had first brought down the Congress chief minister and then its alliance with BJP. In 2008, BJP formed the government on its own, though with a thin majority. In 2013, Congress returned with an outright majority. BJP was always keen to bag Karnataka, now one of the last big non-BJP states.

Soon after assuming power at the Centre in May 2014, Modi appointed Vajubhai Bala as Governor of Karnataka. An old BJP loyalist, he served in Modi’s cabinet in Gujarat for fourteen years.

The referee is in your corner! 

Fast forward to 2018. As events unfolded in May, the Governor asked Yediyurappa to be sworn in as Chief Minister on 17 May, ignoring the claims of the Congress-JD(S) alliance with 115 seats, a clear majority. More, he gave Yediyurappa an unprecedented 15 days to prove his strength on the floor of the House.Of course he acted perfectly legally. The Constitution accords discretion to the Governor.

Supreme Court intervened at the request of alliance partners and asked the Chief Minister to prove his majority on 19 May. Unable to muster requisite support, Yediyurappa quit ahead of the trust vote. Amit Shah’s strategy almost succeeded! Should we not credit Amit Shah’s (President of BJP and its chief strategist) foresight?

We can see that anticipation played the critical role in the strategies of each of the leaders. The long view of Amit Shah and Modi laid the ground for a possibility they had in all probability anticipated. Sonia Gandhi initiated dialogue with Deve Gowda a week before elections. She played a strategic move BEFORE election results were declared. Deve Gowda anticipated his kingmaker role and negotiated advantages for his party and son.

The next five years? 

Aficionados of Game Theory can expect more action in future. Hectic parleys for ministerial berths are afoot even as I write this piece. In the months and years ahead there will be threats, promises, and innovative strategic moves by each of the three parties with the intent to sustain or destroy the coalition. No doubt with an eye on the 2019 parliamentary elections.

Uncertainty will be the essence of strategy in such fluid situations. And anticipation will remain the acme of strategic thinking.

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