A bit of Schelling, Mr Gilani!

The Friday Times; Jan 7-13; Vol XXII; No 47

Ejaz Haider
Time to go for the threat that leaves something to chance

While Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani is running helter-skelter trying to get the PMLN and the PMLQ to support his government, the two parties have already upped the ante. Mian Nawaz Sharif has presented his 9-point charter of demand that ends with the predictable “failing which”, and Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain says he is no simpleton that can be tricked by the PPP into supporting their government. Meanwhile, the breakaway faction of the Q League has asked Sharif to move a no-confidence resolution which they would support.

Now what? Let’s take stock.

Gilani has 157 members in his brood. The Opposition, if all its disparate players were to get together, could come up with 181 heads, counting in the 7 independents. Gilani has two choices. One is to try and get guarantees from other players that they are not interested in moving against him. The second is to play a bold hand and signal shared risk.

He is taking the first approach right now, banking on the PMLN and the PMLQ to not become a party to any no-confidence move against him. That leaves the MQM and the JUIF, the two allies that have walked out on him, to try and pull the plug. Neither can, given Article 95 (1) of the Constitution which requires that a resolution be moved by 20 per cent of the total membership of the National Assembly, which comes to 69 members.
Trying to isolate the MQM and the JUIF from the rest of the Opposition looks like a smart strategy but won’t be effective. If the PMLN and the PMLQ do not join a move to oust Gilani’s government, he may possibly get a short lease of life. But given what the two parties are signalling, it should be clear that Gilani’s government would become ineffective and dependent entirely on the manipulation of N and Q, a fact which would be obvious to anyone who knows his Ps and Qs.

If Gilani wants to merely hang in there, whatever the cost to his government’s efficacy, then this course of action would seem fine. But whether this would be any better than Bahadur Shah Zafar’s writ is moot.

The second option is for Gilani to manipulate risk through compellence. For that he needs to read Thomas Schelling. He must respond with his own brinkmanship.

Brinkmanship is about shared risk and sharing risk means no player wants the situation to end up in disaster. A chess game, as Schelling argues, “can end in win, lose, or draw” and suggests “adding a fourth outcome called ‘disaster’.” He then asks, “What does this new rule do to the way a game is played?”

“If a game is played well, and both players play for the best score they can get, we can state two observations. First, a game will never end in disaster. It could only terminate in disaster if one of the players made a deliberate move that he knew would cause disaster, and he would not. Second, the possibility of disaster will be reflected in the players’ tactics… [The] ability to block or to deter certain moves of the adversary will be an important part of the game; the threat of disaster will be effective, so effective that the disaster never occurs.”

Instead of “requesting” leaders of N and Q to not let his government fall, he should signal to them that they share the risk inherent in his fall. He could indicate that he would inform President Asif Zardari that he had lost the majority in Parliament and that the president could invite the Opposition to form government. And if the Opposition fails in that venture, then either they repose a vote of confidence in his government or the president dissolves the assembly on Gilani’s advice and all political actors can start preparing for new elections.

As Schelling argued: “Among a group of arthritics moving delicately and slowly at a cocktail party, no one can be dislodged from his position near the bar, or ousted from his favourite chair; bodily contact is equally painful to his assailant.” Translated into English this means that if new elections are painful for all players, then Gilani is in a position to signal that all will have to share the risk if his government falls.

Short of this strategy, even if Gilani’s government can survive for a few more months, it will have lost any initiative. Gilani has to realise that the time to compromise is over. So far, he did well by trying hard to keep the coalition together, but the signalling has been misunderstood by other players. They have attributed this to pusillanimity.

Having said this, let me also state that the PPP government needs to calculate if the time has come to think of early elections. New elections are unlikely to throw up a clean majority for any one party, but it could do much to dilute pressure politics which has become the basis of survival for parties that may have a sizeable chunk of MPs – the MQM, for instance – but can never unhinge themselves from their parochial roots and interests.

C’mon, Mr Gilani, go for the threat that leaves something to chance.

The writer is Contributing Editor of The Friday Times

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