Friday, 24 March 2017


Vote sale and Game Theory

There is no gainsaying that most candidates do not hesitate to buy votes. There is equally no gainsaying many voters are willing to make a quick few thousands by selling their votes. There however can never be any certainty that candidates who have paid to buy votes will get what they paid for. In the secrecy of the polling booths, the voters can exercise their franchise free of any legal obligations to those who paid them, though probably with a little moral debt sellers generally owe to buyers. The latter is what candidates’ bank on to get their investment’s worth, and probably they get it to a fair degree too, otherwise the practice would have had its natural death long ago. Obviously not all votes are up for sale, but a good many obviously are, and this is where the problem is. How can this endemic problem be tackled is a question in the minds of all who believe in the best tradition of democracy and consequently, good justiciable governance. An assessment of which class of people sell and which does not should be a good start in any attempt to tackle this problem. But equally interesting should be to look at the problem from the vote buyer’s point of view.

Let us look at the last proposition first. Why do candidates venture to pay for favours they cannot be certain would be delivered? In trying to understand this enigma, maybe a look at the Game Theory would be helpful. Though not many of us are mathematicians, most of us have a pretty good cognizance of how this theory works from reading “A Beautiful Mind”, the bestselling biography of American mathematical genius, John Nash, who in his prime slipped into the mental disorder schizophrenic paranoia and then miraculously recovered to again work and share the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1994 for his valuable contribution to the Game Theory. His biography has also since become an Oscar winning biopic, helping more non-mathematicians to familiarize with the theory. At its very basic, the Game Theory is about obtaining the optimum benefit for all in a multi-stake group decision. In any election, a candidate will have to essentially spend some money to organize his or her campaign. If all candidates were to spend only the bare essential and not resort to vote buying, that would be to the optimum benefit of all. But all of them have to do this together in the intuitive understanding this would be a perfect Game Theory equilibrium. But if one candidate breaks this unwritten understanding and starts buying votes, he will get all the advantage by breaking the norm while the others refrain in deference of the understanding. In most situations however, the endemic suspicion that a rival candidate would break the norm leads all to begin buying votes, reducing the election to a fish market where buyers and sellers are in an unrestrained, maddening, haggle, never knowing if each has got the best benefit from their bargains. From this vantage, controlling this menace will have to be from a respect for civilized norm and the internalised understanding that breaking the norm is taboo for it will ultimately be to the detriment of all candidates.

What about the complimentary issue of voters selling their votes? Here too the Game Theory would apply, but more than this, there are probably other class dynamics at work. To many, Rs.1000 mean little, and repulsive if it is offered as a bribe.  If these persons also have the means to a comfortable life already, they may even be able to afford the luxury of a “moral” outlook to life that makes them refuse even a crore as bribe. This threshold of livelihood security is probably the answer to this problem. If everybody were to gain this, maybe bribing anyone would become extremely difficult, if not virtually impossible. But to somebody who is unfortunate to have no means to earn more than Rs. 50 a day or even earns nothing at all, morality of accepting Rs. 1000 offered for endorsing a candidate would obviously acquire a totally different meaning. Indeed the enlightened views of politics and democracy those fortunate to be in the literate and financially secure groups would not have the same meaning to those not sure where the next meal would be coming from. While it is essential to continue to preach the virtues of democracy and of the evil of selling votes, the bigger reform obviously will have to be about lifting the economy so that a majority, if not all voters, are above the threshold of livelihood security first. It is in a way the old chicken and egg story again. On one hand, good visionary politicians are essential to introduce policies that can ensure optimum literacy and affluence for the entire population. On the other hand, only an affluent and literate society which intuitively understands the dangers of selling votes is essential to elect good politicians. The answer probably is to tackle both simultaneously.

6-Mar-2017 / IFP Editorials / 0 Comments


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