Sasikala in prison: Game theory wins out at Golden Bay resorts

A1, A2, A3, A4 — the nomenclature for the four accused in that 1996-vintage corruption case which was decided on 14 February, 2017 couldn’t be more delicious for those of us with a game theory fetish. J Jayalalithaa, VK Sasikala (Sasikala Natarajan as far as the court is concerned), J Ilavarasi and Sudhakaran are A1, A2, A3 and A4 respectively.

Game theory’s most popular chapter in colleges around the world is also its finest and most fun — Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Two criminals and in this case let’s call them A and B are caught and accused of a crime together. Cops separate them and encourage them to rat out the other — called “defection”. Zipping your lips is “cooperating”. If B rats out, both lose big. If they stay mum, both gain.

The payoff is like this:
A defects, B cooperates: A goes free, B in jail
A cooperates, B defects: A gets three years, B goes free
Both co-operate, both gain.
Both go ballistic, both get two years.

VK Sasikala and O Panneerselvam.

VK Sasikala and O Panneerselvam.

If you look carefully at the four options above and ignore all the other details, if both go kicking and screaming away from each other, both get away with two years, which is less than the worst outcome of three years.

Now let’s distort this arrangement just enough to introduce our Mannargudi star cast: Sasikala is A and her MLAs in Golden Bay resort are B. That the Supreme Court has convicted Sasikala (or would have) is already factored into this.


Another assumption is that one or two defections from B to the OPS camp do not skew the nature of B — unless there are so many defections that B is unable to enjoy the support of 117 MLAs. This is because 117 is the minimum number that B needs to win control of the state legislature which is the prize they're playing for.

Automatically, that means MaFoi Pandiarajan cursing OPS and then joining OPS is irrelevant — he does not tip the balance. To do that, at least 8-10 MLAs must flee from Golden Bay resorts.

Finally, all nephews, nieces, and off shoots of the Sasikala family tree are deemed to be A. The more ED, FERA and general assault and cheating cases they have against their names, the better. Wearing sunglasses, Safari suits, thick gold chains and roaming in white Land Cruisers gets extra credit in A’s mind when A meditates upon the human condition in Parappana Agrahara Central Jail in Bengaluru.

Consider what TS Sudhir says on the numbers and loyalty:

“The thinning crowds at Panneerselvam's residence on Greenways Road indicate that Team Panneerselvam has realised it does not have the momentum and is claiming that if the MLAs who are holed up at the resort are set free, they will not back Palanisamy but Panneerselvam. But the claim is not borne out by facts on the ground. Because at the resort, the loyalty factor to Sasikala is enormous.

That is because each of the 124 MLAs supporting Palanisamy is a creation of the Jayalalithaa-Sasikala combine. They are aware that they got elected because of Sasikala's recommendation for a ticket and finances and Jayalalithaa's campaign for them.”


So, just as in theory, “cooperation” in this Golden Bay prisoners’ game has evolved because both A and B have both the conditions necessary to band together — a past and a future together. In our game here, Sasikala has not suckered B, she has helped B by showering them with tickets for the 2016 Assembly Elections, she has bestowed favours on them while Jayalalithaa was unwell (and that’s been the case since she came out of jail in October 2014, that she died in 2016 is a mere footnote in this context). Both A and B have developed a code of silence that predates the MLAs dash to Golden Bay resorts and this is crucial for “cooperation”.

Although OPS has too has a history in politics and has been praised to the skies by Jayalalithaa, this is his first “game” — a single round, which by its very definition is not a sufficient condition for co-operation when criminals abound.

In the hard code of game theory, A and B don’t get to talk to each other but in our “distorted” example, they did which is why the cooperation is even thicker. Sasikala went personally to Golden Bay so A and B spoke and both sides hugged tighter.

That’s why the curious sight of riot police outside and loyalists inside saying no, we are not here by force. Even if they are, they won’t tell because silence is the code via which they signal to other comrades the fruits of obedience over multiple games.

Way back in 1949, a math phenom called John Nash sent a one pager to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on a concept that was to lay the foundation for his Nobel winning effort in 1994 — where he laid bare his 'Nash equilibrium'. Shorn of all complexity, this is its core idea: The result of people or institutions making rational choices basis their calculation of what others will do. In equilibrium, no one can improve their situation by changing tack; each one is performing at their peak and that does not guarantee the best outcome for society. With elegant math, Nash showed us how any game with a limited set of players and finite outcomes to choose from would have at least one equilibrium.

Sasikala in jail and a bloke called Palanisamy who nobody knows as possible CM and her proxies as chiefs of parallel power structures is the best outcome for Sasikala but not for society, it’s the result of multi-games that many criminals have played over many rounds and because they have developed a code of silence that they have found equilibrium. For OPS, it’s Round One.

For Tamil Nadu though, the result of B not snitching is a zero sum game — shorthand for the idea that the winner's gains and the loser's losses is equal in value. Sasikala’s brood had no incentive to cooperate with opponents because every MLA ceded to OPS is a possible Cabinet post lost. It also reminds us that the wisdom of crowds is counterbalanced by their madness. Game theory’s foundation is rational behaviour but this is clearly problematic because politicians who become ‘democracy-free’ after gaining power don't follow society’s best interests.

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Published Date: Feb 16, 2017 11:50 am | Updated Date: Feb 16, 2017 12:26 pm


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