The Zero Sum Narrative


With the release of Wing Commander Abhinandan, we have seen vociferous expressions of what it meant from both sides of the fence. One section claims that the release of the Indian pilot is a peace gesture that signifies a shift to a Naya Pakistan as promised by the Pak PM Imran Khan. The other claims that the release is a huge diplomatic victory for India, achieved by a strategic decision to not allow talks with Pakistan till the pilot is released and thereby putting pressure on Pakistan to adhere to the Geneva Convention.

In both the above cases, whichever may be true, a common thread is a zero-sum game. Either Pakistan has the moral victory over India, painting India in a bad light or India has the diplomatic victory over Pakistan, giving a shot in the arm for our geopolitical presence. In neither scenario does both countries gain, there is no win-win situation. But maybe there is. By the prompt return of our pilot, India won in bringing Abhinandan safely back and Pakistan won a de-escalation of tensions. Why is such a scenario - a compromise between conflicting interests - lacking in the Indian narrative?

The same concept of zero-sum games seems to be ubiquitous. Whether it is the growing influence of China, both as a military and an economic power, or the question of Kashmir and article 370, or the Ayodhya-Babri Masjid and Sabarimala issue, or the Rohingya and citizenship bill issues or even our very own first past the post parliamentary system, there always seems to be a clear cut winner and loser in the outcome. A middle ground where all parties are satisfied seems way too rare, and even when it happens, like in the example of Captian Abhinandan, both sides find ways to declare themselves the winner.

This lack of confidence to agree that the opposing side may also have gained is intriguing. Especially in India, the country that, in 1947, spurned the zero-sum religion-oriented model of governance adopted by Pakistan but rather went ahead with its own win-win secular narrative. India is also the country that boldly took the initiative for the middle ground during the most intense zero-sum game in history - the cold war. NAM and Panchsheel were both radical initiatives that gave India a win-win narrative. Maybe the lack of loud-mouthed social media warriors gave the government of the time the required courage to take such a step.

The zero-sum narrative is also a very visible aspect of our political culture. Almost every single decision taken by a government is derided by the opposition, or in case of a decision that cannot be argued against, the opposition maintains a steady silence. Often enough, when the same opposition forms the government, the reverse becomes true. Any praise of government policy is seen as an act of rebellion. An example would be the Congress MP from Trivandrum Dr. Sashi Tharoor. His praise for the Modi government for managing to implement an international day of Yoga and thereby increase India's soft power was not taken kindly to by his own party members. Even more recently, CPI(M) suspended Maharashtra state secretary Narasayya Adam for praising PM Modi at a public event. But such exceptions aside, except when the time comes to form coalition governments, the zero-sum principle rules the roost - we are right and all else are wrong.

Common sense tells us that a win-win narrative is, by all means, a better solution than a zero-sum slug fest. And yet we adhere to the later and sorely lack the former. A positive change would be welcome, but it would be difficult. It would mean having to appreciate 2Sides of the story and having the mental fortitude to accept that our side may not be in the right all the while. In today's hyper-charged nationalistic atmosphere, it may also mean risking being branded as anti-national and a traitor for not adhering to the dominant narrative. But in a globalised social media obsessed world, subscribing blindly to a single zero-sum narrative bounded by narrow domestic walls, as Tagore so eloquently put it more than a century ago, is equivalent to putting blinders on.

Athul Krishna A is an ardent fan of everything DC, everything fantasy and everything sci-fi. He is a regualar writer on a variety of topics at 2Sides. Currently pursing a B.Tech degree from College of Engineering Trivandrum, he can be reached at

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