Analyzing Indo-Pak Relations Post-Pulwama Attack Using Game Theory

Chandrasekaran Mridul Bhardwaj

National Law University, Odisha.


On 14th February 2019, when an Indian convoy comprising of Central Reserve Police were passing through the district of Pulwama[1] in Jammu & Kashmir, there was a suicide bombing in which a truck containing military-grade RDX explosives[2] rammed into the convoy thereby martyring more than 42 personals.[3] It was one of the biggest terrorist attacks that took place in the Indian soil and it was linked with Jaish-E-Mohammed, a group of Islamist militants, whom India believed to be backed by the Pakistani government in a conspiracy to challenge the Indian sovereignty.[4]

This created a tension between the India and Pakistan, which lead to them playing “the Chicken game”. The chicken game[5] is basically a game that is part of the game theory and is one of the most prominent examples of the usage of game theory and in finding the Nash equilibrium. The game has various versions, but the most popular version is that “A” and “B” are two distinct individuals, who are directly opposite to each other in a single lane road, and each has a car of their own, the challenge is that both of them have to accelerate their cars at the maximum speed and see that who is the one that swerves their car first so as to avoid a direct collision between both the players. The person who swerves their car first will be the “chicken” (Indicating that the person is scared) and the person who did not turn their car would become the winner.

So, in this game, we can see that there are 4 distinct possibilities that can arise:

1) A and B both do not swerve their cars and collide with each other

2) A does not turn but B does thereby make A the winner and B the chicken

3) B does not turn but A does thereby make B the winner and A the chicken

4) Both B and A swerve away thereby making both of them a chicken and none the winner

The functionality of this game is that, if both of them do not swerve and proceed straight, then there would be a fatal collision, which in reality is in none of their interests. So, therefore, this option would have the lowest utility and is the worst possible decision that can be taken by the players. If one of the players turns and the other does not, then the party that turned would have less utility than the party that did not turn, as that party which went straight ahead won the game would have a higher level of satisfaction than the player who swerved away. If both the parties swerve, then neither would have a higher utility than the other as both of them have lost the game.

This would mean that the worst possible outcome for both the parties, in this case, would be that both do a head-on collision. The best outcome, however, in this case according the Nash equilibrium would not be that both the players chicken out, but rather it would be that one of the player chickens out and the other wins the game, this is because the Nash equilibrium suggests that a “player” should act according to the moves of the other “player” and take the best decision possible. If both the player will chicken out then it is not the best decision, since it would have given a higher utility to one player if that player had won the game by going straight rather than chickening out. Therefore in this situation, the equilibrium[6] would be when one player wins and the other player chickens out. Hence in this particular game, there can be two possible equilibriums that can be identified.

In our present situation, the two players are India and Pakistan, the first move that India took against Pakistan was that it conducted airstrikes by dropping payload in the Balakot region of Pakistan.[7] In this case, Pakistan had two options, either it could have chickened out, or it could have increased the stakes by retaliating. Pakistan in this situation took the latter and further escalated the situation by violating the Indian airspace.[8]

During the Pakistani Air Force’s attempt to enter the Indian airspace, the Indian Air Force sabotaged their plan by chasing the Pakistani F-16 jets using MIG 21 jets and the end result of the encounter was that the Indian MIG 21 shot down the much more technologically advanced F 16 jet, but subsequently, the MIG 21 crashed due to possible usage of Surface to air missile which led to the Indian pilot crash land into the Pakistani territory.[9]

This is situation had created a deadlock between both the nations as if neither of the nation’s held back then there could have been a potential crash like that in the Chicken game. In our case since both of the nations are highly militarized and nuclear-powered nations if the worst were to be considered then the “crash” could have potentially created an Indo-Pak nuclear war. Therefore, it was absolutely in the interest of none of the parties to indulge in a crash.

In the end, therefore, the better sense prevailed in both the countries and they decided that no one is going be benefited by such a clash, therefore India showed its maturity by not pursuing military action further as it believed that it’s the purpose of sending a message to Pakistan asking them to curb the militantism and terrorism in their country or face the consequences succeeded, and Pakistan on its part said that they will cooperate[10] in reducing militantism and respected the Geneva Convention by handing over the Indian Pilot back to India[11], thereby signifying that they don’t want to escalate the matter further.

The players must have realized in the end, that just because they wanted to win the game doesn’t mean that they would have won it as it is not necessary that the other party would have swerved away, in which case the end result would have been a crash, which is defiantly not in the best interest of neither of the parties - therefore the benefits of not crashing outweighed the benefits of winning the game.

This doctrine adopted by both the parties is something that the eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell also argued for during the Cuban missile’s crises. He said that this chicken game is a decedent, immoral and juvenile game when played by young people, and this gets magnified when this game is played by statesmen where the only thing that stops them from swerving away is their ego, which sooner or later would cause devastating results, as in this game, not only their lives but the lives of countless other people are also involved.[12]

[1] Press Trust of India, Jaish terrorists attack CRPF convoy in Kashmir, kill at least 40 personnel, Times of India, (Feb. 16, 2019), [2] Neeraj Chauhan, Pulwama probe: Military grade RDX used points to Pakistan, Times of India, (Feb. 19, 2019), [3] Rifat Fareed, Kashmir suicide attack kills dozens of Indian security forces, ALJAZEERA , (Feb. 14, 2019), [4] Pulwama attack: India will 'completely isolate' Pakistan, BBC , (Feb. 15, 2019), [5] University of Massachusetts, Basic Concepts of Game Theory, [6] Ichiro Obara, University of California, Los Angeles, Nash Equilibrium, [7] India targeted biggest JeM terror camp in Pakistan’s Balakot; Masood Azhar’s brother-in-law killed: Govt, Times Now , (Feb. 26, 2019), [8] India Today Web Desk, Pakistani jets cross LoC, Indian Air Force takes down one F-16, India Today, (Feb. 27, 2019), [9] Times Now Bureau, How IAF pilot Abhinandan Varthaman brought down Pakistan’s F-16 jet - Minute by minute details, Times Now, (Mar. 3, 2019), [10] TNM Staff, We should sit down, talk about the problems, The News Minute, (Feb. 27, 2019), [11] Press Trust of India, No goodwill gesture to return pilot Abhinandan, was expected under Geneva Conventions, says IAF, India Today, (Feb. 28, 2019), [12] Stanford University, International Security in a Changing World Nuclear Weapons and Proliferation: A Cheat Sheet, We thank you for your support and encouragement to Internationalism. We believe in providing open access to our articles, reports and papers without any paywall for our readers and those who pray well for the think-tank. In order to keep our content open accessed and free, we need your support. Please donate any amount up to 500 INR if possible.

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