What does a Citizen do? II

The top three states in India in terms of most indices — Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh — are similar in that they haven’t re-elected an incumbent government for over two decades. So it’s tempting to conclude that citizens adopting a blind ‘always vote out’ strategy may be a simple and easy option to ensure good governance. However, as UP has shown in the past decade, it’s clearly not sufficient. Further, this game treats political parties as entities and tries to pick one among them as a winner. But what if the citizen wants to play the game against the entire system?

Between 1996 and 1999 there were five different Cabinets in office with three different Prime Ministers and three general elections[1]. Whether this was deliberate as a strategy by the voter or not, it resulted in the political system being “punished.” After all no politician wants to contest elections often. They are costly and uncertain for the politician in multiple ways. A combination no reasonable business would want. And in this, while the cost to the politician was quite high, the cost to the electorate wasn’t. The one obvious cost to the electorate is that long term vision was probably lacking which might have had an impact on investment. But most governments fail at this even when they have stable majorities. A simple look at the economic output in the said period shows that it’s not much worse compared to the average performance of governments in the previous and next stable Lok Sabhas.

If one was a student in the mid 90s in Madras, one also heard random middle aged professors tell one that frequent elections brought out black money better than any amnesty scheme[2]. Let’s assume that is true. The disadvantage of seeking to impose a very high cost on the corrupt would mean they’d be more corrupt the next time and therefore returning an unstable mandate to the Lok Sabha is a bad strategy if used too frequently.

On the other hand, if used once every 2 or 3 cycles, it may just bring out the ill-gotten wealth in a way that’s close to optimal. A strategy that’s close to this maybe TF3T — that is, cooperate unless partner played ‘defect’ in all of the last 3 rounds[3]. Except the tit in ‘tit-for-tat’ here for the system has to be over and top of the ‘tit’ for the political party/entity. That is, one cannot play a ‘tit’ after a regular Lok Sabha and has to wait for having cooperated with the same entity twice. So, one should vote to throw out every government unless it does well. And if it does well, re-elect it only to return an unstable verdict in the subsequent election if the previous unstable formation was more than 3 cycles ago.

Seen this way, unstable governments with short term vision and no point to their existence except their existence maybe a required ‘safety valve’ at least once every 15 years. Coincidentally, we are at one such moment now in the electoral cycle.

[1] – The last of which lasted the full term. Or the extent of fullness it thought was enough to call for early elections.

[2] – Amnesty schemes in the 90s were a thing, remember? One wonders if they too have a TF3T cycle for optimality.

[3] – I don’t know how to quantify and calculate here. If you have an idea, please let me know. Let’s do that and it may be far more interesting than hand-waving with words.