When Maharashtra Assembly election results were declared on October 24, 2019 it was a foregone conclusion that BJP would form the government with their ally Shiv Sena. With 161 seats between them (BJP 105, Shiv Sena 56) they had clear majority in the 288-member House. That it was not be is an interesting application of Game Theory in political strategy.

The back story

In spite of a pre-poll 50:50 alliance between the two parties, a wrangling ensued. Shiv Sena wanted the Chief Minister’s position to be rotated after the first two and half years. That is what 50:50 stood for, they said.

BJP countered that equal sharing of power did not imply this; that it was never agreed. Shiv Sena held its hand and BJP, without clear majority by itself, declined to form the government.

On November 12, 19 days after election results were announced, the Union Cabinet imposed President’s Rule.

Shiv Sena’s brinkmanship

Shiv Sena’s strategy was aimed at disrupting BJP’s hegemony in the State. And it almost succeeded. Had the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) with 54 seats and Congress (44) agreed to support Shiv Sena, the new coalition would have had absolute majority. That is what Uddhav Thackeray, President of Shiv Sena, had hoped for.

He was saying to BJP: “Agree to sharing the Chief Minister’s post and we will join you. But if you do not, I do not know how things might play out”. He might have added “If things do not work out it may hurt us both”.

A failure to anticipate

If BJP had perceived the cost to be intolerably high, as Thackeray had hoped, they would probably have accepted Shiv Sena’s demand. But Uddhav did not know how BJP would assess the consequence of not forming the government. Further, he had hoped NCP and Congress would willingly support his Party and the three would form a stable government. The two Congress parties have been worried about the reputational cost of joining hands with a far right party whose ideology is radically different.

In the event, BJP did not yield and the two Congresses did not readily agree. Shiv Sena’s brinkmanship seems to have backfired.

The uncertain price of brinkmanship

In this first round of the game, it seems Shiv Sena’s strategy has flopped. But then, in the real world, one game rolls into another, then another, and so on. The three parties can yet join hands if they can agree to a Common Minimum Programme. Or, it may again fail Thackeray.

The outcome continues to be uncertain for Shiv Sena.

If Thackeray does form the coalition, he will do so at a fairly large cost. The two Congress parties would almost certainly drive a hard bargain now that he is on the backfoot. It is likely that he will have to dilute Sena’s Marathi Manoos (Marathi people) rhetoric, among other things. It may weaken their vote bank by the time the next election comes around. It is possible they may govern the State well, deal effectively with pressing problems like farmer distress, and strengthen their prospects.

The long game

The Governor of Maharashtra has emerged as another player in the game. He may play spoilsport and extend President’s rule beyond six months. BJP may engineer defection of some elected members from the other three parties. With no government in sight, the Governor might advise the Union Cabinet to hold fresh elections. Will BJP have a compelling narrative then? Will Sena successfully play the victim card, or will voters see them as a dog in the manger? Will NCP and Congress gain credibility at the expense of BJP and Shiv Sena?

Perhaps Uddhav Thackeray is playing a long game and will come up trumps? We will find out in time. But for now we can learn about brinkmanship – this special class of strategic move. We can see it can yield rich dividends. But it can go horribly wrong too.

Impo

rtant lessons for students of strategy: What is brinkmanship?

Brinkmanship is an innovative strategy designed to force the opponent’s hand and gain advantage for oneself. It creates uncertainty, loss of control, and imposes costs of both players. Uncertainty arises from the many strategies available to the opponent besides the one the initiator hopes for. Voluntary ceding of control leaves the opponent’s choice of strategy to chance, and outcomes, probabilistic.

Brinkmanship is best used when the game is fluid and rules are unclear or do not exisit. As time goes by the game does not remain limited to two players. Entry of other actors in the game creates complexity, and greater uncertainty. It imposes cost on both players. It does not always pay, but rewards can be remarkable when it does.

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