The XYZ of India-Pakistan Relations

India and Pakistan are engaged in a high-stakes game in which the outcomes (and non-outcomes) are significant for many of the players involved. The essential ABCs of this game are well known; the finer XYZs are less obvious and I aim to address some of them in this article.

It might be useful to treat the high-stakes game as just that – a game – and employ some of the features of game theory to better understand the situation.

For those unfamiliar with game theory, here is a very brief orientation.

We regularly engage in transactions in which our actions are independent of the actions of others and have no measurable impact on them either. If you go to the market to buy a cup of coffee you are engaging in this sort of a familiar independent action.

There are other situations in which the choice of your action can depend on the action of someone else. Such situations can be likened to games. Chess is a classic example of such a game in which your next move depends on the move of your opponent. Not only that, it also depends on what you believe might be his/her next few moves; these, in turn, depend on your move and his/her anticipation of your next few moves.

Since the India-Pakistan relationship is inter-dependent, this is all we need for the moment to think of it in terms of a game. But consider how extremely simple a game of chess is to appreciate the complexity of the India-Pakistan game.

  1. The rules of chess are clearly defined and fixed.
  2. There is a neutral referee to ensure that rules are not violated.
  3. No violence or physical punishment is permitted in the game.
  4. There are only two players in the game, one on each side.
  5. The responsibility for their actions rests solely on the individual players.
  6. Each player acts only in his or her own interest.
  7. During a game, the players cannot communicate with each other either directly or through intermediaries.
  8. Whatever one player wins, the other loses – think of the prize money of the match with all of it going to the winner.
  9. There are no unrelated side-games going on at the same time as the main game.
  10. The game has to be completed within a given time or a given number of moves.

Most conflicts in real life can be modeled as games but a moment’s reflection on the above list should convey how much more complex even ordinary real-life games are compared to chess. Imagine the familiar scenario in which an individual dies leaving behind a piece of land with a house or factory on it to be divided among the survivors. Most would agree that few if any of the simplifying assumptions of a pure game like chess would apply in this case even though in theory the rules of inheritance are well defined. There may be a quick outcome or there may never be one; the players might or might not trust each other; some players might desire a quick decision while others might want to drag out the process; intermediaries and arbiters might be bought out or intimidated; there may be a cooperative outcome or a non-cooperative one; all the players might gain, all might lose, or some might gain while others might lose; future gains or losses could be very much more than the present worth of the property if opportunity costs and costs of litigation are factored in.

Consider another familiar example – the game of cricket. We have seen all of the following: sub-games between factions in the same team; players preferring to lose rather than win and strengthen the position of a captain they don’t like; coaches, selectors, or administrators making key decisions instead of the captain; players throwing matches; umpires and players cheating in games; players maximizing their own interest instead of that of the team. The list can continue to be expanded.

One would rightly expect a game between two countries with a confrontational history to be much more complicated than the above examples. The aim of this article is not to propose a solution but to suggest a way in which these complications can be thought through in a systematic fashion using the template of game theory. A fuller understanding might help dissolve some of the myths that perpetuate the conflict.

The following are some salient characteristics of the India-Pakistan conflict:

  1. There is not one conflict but a set of conflicts that are at issue.
  2. There is more than one player with decision-making power on both sides. (Note: India and Pakistan are not players – they are represented by various groups with varying degrees of power.)
  3. The players formally designated as leaders in the negotiation may actually have less power that players acting behind the scenes.
  4. Because of the lack of transparency about players with actual decision-making power, there is likely to be a problem in communication between the two sides. The nominal equivalents on the two sides might have very unequal decision-making powers.
  5. The gains from resolving the conflict are huge. Not only are there actual costs imposed by the conflict (see Who Wants Peace in the Subcontinent?), there are also gains that cannot be realized unless relations are normalized.
  6. The biggest beneficiaries of such gains from normalization are the majority of the citizens of both countries for whom the costs of many essential commodities would decrease and new jobs would be created. They are stakeholders in the game but without any real power or ability to affect the outcome.
  7. The players with the power and ability to affect the outcome are materially well-off. For them the gains from normalization would not make measurable differences in their quality of life.
  8. There might actually be players who gain from a continuation of the conflict. If so, they would need to keep the conflict alive at just the right level of intensity – not so high as to upset the entire apple-cart; not so low as to be ineffective.
  9. Players who believe they would lose from normalization might undermine the credibility of other players on their own side with relatively more to gain.
  10. There are simultaneous side-games between key sub-groups on each side. The end of conflict might lead to a shift in the balance of power between these sub-groups that the negatively affected would resist even at the cost of prolonging the conflict.
  11. The passage of time might affect the two teams in different ways. The stronger team might aim to wear down the weaker one simply by delaying the resolution of the conflict and by raising its costs.
  12. Both teams influence their major stakeholders, the ordinary citizens, in various ways and for various ends, by means of state-controlled media and education and by making it difficult for them to have people-to-people exchanges.

Each of these points apply in differing degrees to both sides. The perceptive reader should have no problem extrapolating them to the reality of the India-Pakistan conflict and in identifying on the two sides the key sets of players along with their internal frictions, incentives, and likely strategies. Not every reader will arrive at the same conclusion but that is not the intention of this exercise. The objective is for the reader to analyze the conflict in a more systematic manner with the common template enabling a mutually intelligible discussion of the resulting viewpoints.

One more premise needs to be stated before the reader embarks on the analysis. In a game, all players (including sub-groups) act in their own self-interest. Any claim by a player that he/she is acting in the larger interest of someone is to be treated skeptically. There might be partial coincidence in some cases and coalitions might form but in general a player would not incur a personal loss to maximize another’s gain even when the other is on the same side. Usually players wielding decision-making power claim to act in the interest of powerless citizens. In theory, such claims are inadmissible. All evidence suggests that the same is true in reality. While saints do exist, they are not part of the games under discussion.

While every reader would arrive at a personal perspective, there are some conclusions that would likely command general agreement. Those with most to gain from an end to conflict, the citizens, lack the power to force its resolution in their interest. Those with the least to gain, and perhaps something to lose, wield effective decision-making power. There are internal conflicts over dominance among sub-groups within teams and these considerations outweigh widely distributed gains from conflict resolution. And key decision-makers might not be averse to keeping citizens misinformed to maximize personal gains.

What should citizens, the majority stakeholders, do in such a situation? That depends on the conclusions they arrive at from their analyses. Citizens do possess some leverage: the vote, the choice to reject misinformation, the space for open debate, and the ability to communicate directly with fellow citizens across borders. Some combination of these is essential to force the power brokers to end a conflict that is preventing a better life for millions of people in the subcontinent.

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  • KD
    Posted at 09:47h, 18 December Reply

    “Those with most to gain from an end to conflict, the citizens, lack the power to force its resolution in their interest. Those with the least to gain, and perhaps something to lose, wield effective decision-making power.”

    This is certainly true for Pakistan. However, in an established democracy like India, one would think that the citizens would yield more pressure on the decision-makers to fight for change. But this hasn’t happened substantially yet. Can one attribute this to Pakistan’s threat and because India knows that those sitting on the other side of the table will never be able to agree to this?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 18:02h, 18 December

      KD: One aim of using the game theory framework was to highlight the fact that there were more than one player on each side. We don’t get very far with narratives that frame the conflict in terms of ‘India knowing Pakistan’s threat’. India and Pakistan are names of inanimate pieces of land – they are not active agents in their own right. Rather, active agents act in their names – and, as said earlier, there are quite a few agents on each side often with conflicting objectives. The acknowledgement included in this statement by the former foreign minister of Pakistan should make that clear:

      As for why Indian citizens don’t put more pressure on their leaders to resolve the conflict with Pakistan, this is a matter for genuine discussion on which people can have varying positions. My view is that there are a number of key asymmetries in the relations between Pakistan which need to be appreciated. We need to move away from the Pakistani perspective which views the relationship as one of parity between two sovereign and equal nations. This is another misleading outcome of thinking of India and Pakistan as animate agents.

      One of the asymmetries is that while almost all of Pakistan’s regions (except Baluchistan) border India or areas disputed with India, only 4 of the 29 states and 7 union territories of India border Pakistan. So, for the vast majority of Indian citizens Pakistan is a much more abstract matter than India is for Pakistani citizens. Also, the Indian economy is much larger and the perception of the incremental material gains from better relations with Pakistan is not overwhelming. The returns to Indian leadership could be considered more significant – for example, permanent membership of the UN Security Council might force a resolution of conflicts referred to the UN. There could be commercial incentives for Indian firms interested in expanding into the Pakistani market. The relevance to ordinary citizens could center around something like the gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to India through Pakistan if energy shortages in India begin to hurt domestic consumers. This kind of linked dependency could also generate in India a self-interest in the stability of Pakistan.

      The more linkages we can have the more there would be a move to stable relations. But, of course, this is the classic chicken-and-egg situation.

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