– by ORKASH Labs, Copyright: ORKASH Services Pvt Ltd

This blog post applies the concepts of game theory to Left Wing Extremism (Naxalism) in India. Game theory has gained importance in recent past in the study of unconventional conflicts. It is a tool for framing and analysing scenarios of strategic importance. The business world uses the principles of game theory to analyse and make competitive sense of strengths and weaknesses of the players involved for optimal decision making with respect to competetion, negotations and pricing strategies.  Corporations have been using this concept to model the mergers & acqusitions, price wars, trade union negotiations, divisional relationships, market dynamics, strikes, product launches etc. in order to make informed decisions and strategic moves.

A ‘Game’ derives its uniqueness from its rules and the way it is being played, be it a price war between two competitors or an unconventional conflict between the State and the insurgents.

To that end, extensive form of modelling has been used in this post to understand the dynamics and arrive at an equilibrium point for the left wing insurgency.

Political Angle – Arriving at Nash Equilibrium

It is understood that a politician will win an election if he aligns himself to the majority aspirations and brings about good governance. In LWE affected regions, the consensus among a proportion of the people is of an anti-State nature, with a belief that the Maoists would some day be instrumental in bringing prosperity to them. Confronted with such a situation, the plausible alternatives available to the politician in order to maximize their chances for wining the election are:

Naxal Political Payoff3

1. He/she aligns to the majority aspirations and therefore supports the Maoists/Naxals, either directly or indirectly (given that Maoism ideology has a large vote bank in the form of an existing support base), or

2. Over the long term, he undertakes developmental initiatives and works for the upliftment of the people to create a genuine support base amongst the masses. (For this to happen the politician has to compete against the support base of the Maoists/Naxals)

In the first scenario, the politician will likely reap the benefits of political allegiance immediately. In the second premise, the process is long-drawn and requires a commitment to the community. The politician has to, through his continuous efforts of bettering their lives, win over the people of the community in the LWE affected region. It is apparent that the first scenario offers the quickest results with the least efforts – the best and more efficient outcome for a politician solely interested in electoral victory.

Now, assuming that two major politicians contest an election, the outcome can be predicted by modeling the situation through the Game Theory. If both politician A and B don’t align with extremists and instead undertake initiatives and set good examples of governance to generate a genuine support base amongst the masses, then either may win the election. They have equal chances. However, it is promoting prosperity and development over the long term and is better for society as a whole. Thus, they both get a positive payoff each, from this situation, and the total of their payoffs is the maximum in this scenario – signifying the Best Possible Outcome for society as a whole. We depict this with the payoffs “A:8, B:8”.

Alternatively, if one politician aligns with the extremists while the other doesn’t (A aligns B doesn’t OR B aligns A doesn’t) then the politician who aligns with them, will win the election in this short run. This is the maximum possible payoff a politician can get as he definitely wins the election, and a better option for the individual than the earlier one (A:8, B:*) described above. The politician who does not align with the extremists is sure to lose the election. Thus, he gets the lowest possible payoff, in this scenario. We depict these payoffs as below:

If A aligns and B doesn’t – A:10, B:0

If B aligns and A doesn’t – A:0, B:10

As we can see, neither of these scenarios are best for society as a whole.

The last scenario we must look at is if both politicians decide to align with the extremists. In this case again both politicians have equal chances of winning the election. However, the important point to note is that this scenario does not lead to prosperity and development in that society. Thus the total of the payoffs of both politicians in such a situation would be less than that in the Best Possible Outcome case. We call this the ‘No Regrets Option’ since neither politician can feel regret for not having played to the interest of the majority to attempt to win. We depict this by the payoffs A:5, B:5.

Now, to predict what is likely to happen we must compare these scenarios and look at what decisions the politicians are likely to make.

In India, the primary goal is election victory, while good governance and development initiatives are unfortunately secondary goals. A major driver that creates this situation is that cast and community act as a dominant force in vote banks alignments, and the divison in vote banks resulting from three to four way election contests (two national parties and one or two regional parties being in the electoral fray in most constituencies). As a consequence governance based politics has increasingly emerges as  a lower priority. Electoral victory – a short term goal, becomes the priority, forcing the political system to align with the supporters of predominant ideology that can add to the vote banks – here, LWE.

The same is depicted in terms of the payoffs of each politician in different scenarios. No matter what Politician B does, A gets a higher payoff by aligning with extremists (If B aligns – 5>0 for A, If B does not align – 10>8 for A; so A will always choose to align). The same is true vice versa that no matter what A does, B gets a higher payoff by aligning with the extremists (If A aligns – 5>0 for B, If A does not align – 10>8 for B; so B will always choose to align). Thus, with both parties interested in maximizing their own well being, they both come to the scenario where both align with the extremists. This is the ‘No Regrets Option’ and is the Nash Equilibrium of this game.

This is why we see the political system attempting to align with the supporters of the predominant ideology of a region, so that it can add to their vote banks.

Operational Angle – Playing the Game – Changing the Rules from Sequential to One time

Politicians are the key players in the Game being played by the State (the counter insugent) and the anti-State extremists (the insurgent). This has emerged as a sequential game – with one party winning at the times when the momentary strength of the other party is weakened. Each party may take turns in winning the game (or temporarily emerging as the dominat player) since both believe that they would be the ultimate winner they continue to play numerous cycles of this sequential game. However, as a result the sequential game is a long-drawn-out and process which would likely hurt resources – both human and financial. Changing the way the game is being played, from sequential play (repetitive game of strike and counter strike) to a one-time game would probably yield more results. Thus the ‘surge operations’ in Iraq and the Greyhounds’ counter insurgency operations in Andhra Pradesh do prove a point here. Insurgency affected regions can be  generally saturated with large number of troops for area domination and population/territory denial to insurgents to bring about a situation conducive for better governance, and  while at the same time relatively smaller numbers of special forces are used in ‘strike role’ to cause attrition on the insurgents.

However, it is to be noted that tactical operations are only a means to achieve a safe environment that facilitates the restoration of the functioning of the civil administrative machinery. The surge operations need to immediately be followed by developmental programs and the creation of employment opportunities for the local populace which would bring about economic prosperity in the region and hinder any possible future extremist infusion and propogation of extremist ideologies.

In a seprate study we have calculated the quantum of resources and budgets needed (including the force levels for the counter-insurgency grid in LWE affected districts), and the capacity building and timelines that it would entail. Suffice here is to say that this would require a minimum of five year plan to just create the required resources and capcity building, and that the resources needed are large scale.

Winning the Game – Creation of a Counter-Narrative for Changing the ‘RULES of the GAME’

Owing to the current nature of law and order management in the Indian state being pre-dominantly an incident response system, the administrative machinery and law enforcement agencies typically focus more on the zones affected by violent forms of extremism.  While certainly effective to some extent, this may not be the most appropriate manner in which to eliminate the extremist movement in its entirety. In order to avoid a possible revival of the movement, the support bases need to be dismantled, as these will otherwise remain fertile grounds for germination of the underlying protest movement of the insurgency.

A community welfare based approach, especially in the peripheral zones, counters the predominant one that has been propounded by the extremists in LWE affected regions – that of State apathy and indifference. The creation, adoption and implementation of a   counter narrative in the affected and surrounding areas would be best experienced through governmental initiatives that facilitate economic prosperity and development.

Case of Northern Ireland

The outside-in devlopmental approach tends to change the Rules of the Sequential Game. It invades, weakens and breaks the support base for the extremist movement, destabilising their hold on the population. It will encourage the groups within the local communities to gradually align themselves and their resources with economic growth and development, which in turn assists the State in its counterinsurgency operations and in quelling any future onset of extremism in the area.

The British counterinsurgency experience in the Northern Ireland insurgency (as also the Greyhounds’ example in Andhra Pradesh state) is a worthy example in the study of the effectiveness of adopting a counter narrative approach to defeat the extremist movement. Through a revamp of their operational tactics from a full-fledged military onslaught to an inclusive community based approach, United Kingdom achieved greater success in margenalising the Northern Ireland secessionist movement propounded by the Provisional Irish Republic Army (IRA).


The tackling of LWE mandates a multifarious approach, focussing on development and security related interventions. The Politicain’s role remains the key. It is the Politician that can set the agenda for the governance and developmental angle to be the pre-dominant form of counter insurgency. This would need to delve into a host of forces at play (in the Game), inter alia, unemployment, poverty, land acquisition, forced displacement, distress migration, propaganda etc. Security related intervention will encompass police organisational structures, equipment, specialised knowledge of terrain, intelligence and a host of other measures for community oriented policing. In pursuing these twin approaches, we need to change the underlying drivers of the insurgency, i.e the Rules of the Game; use of game theory based modeling and maangment can shed light on underlying dynamics and sharpen the decisions, which can be a game changer in tackling LWE.


only 1 comment until now

  1. Good application of Game Theory model to LWE situation and yes setting a counter narrative seems the logical solution. But herein also the challenge would be aligning the incentives of the state and the politicians to go that way. UK-IRA/Greyhounds examples would serve as role models only if there is collective willingness amongst leaders.

    ps1- pls QC the article.
    ps2- would definitely like to see the study determining the quantum of resource requirements and specifically excited to see the approach.

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