Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | India should value the loyalty of those who speak up
These protests may wane as protesters grow tired, but not die. They will surge back with the next grievance. (Photo: PTI)
These protests may wane as protesters grow tired, but not die. They will surge back with the next grievance. (Photo: PTI)

Opinion | India should value the loyalty of those who speak up

The Centre will find that it pays to listen to those who have exit options but prefer to voice grievances

When and why do people protest? Why do they protest over some issues but not others? These questions have come up since the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) was enacted and the possibility of an all-India National Register of Citizens (NRC). The persistence of protests against the CAA and NRC and its spread nationwide have surprised people.

While some are surprised, others are angry at protesters, labelling them anti-national or unpatriotic. Many online fora quickly degenerate into calls to “go to Pakistan" if one expresses any dissatisfaction with the government. They suggest that if one is in India, one must have chosen it over other countries, leaping to the conclusion that because one has not left, everything is alright under the Indian government.

The late Albert O. Hirschman described this dichotomy between an exit and a voice in his famous book, Exit, Voice, And Loyalty: Responses To Decline In Firms, Organizations, And States. He argued that when individuals are dissatisfied with any organization, whether it is the state, place of work, or a business, they essentially have two options: either to exit the organization, or to voice one’s complaint in the hope of improving matters.

The exercise of the exit option is determined by other available substitutes. In competitive markets, dropping products sold by one business for another imposes very low costs. If an employer creates a bad working environment, employees can and do leave. On the other hand, when there are few substitutes, and exit is costly, individuals choose to use their voice—to criticize, protest and change the existing organization.

In the context of the state, there are different levels of state functions at which individuals choose between using their voice and making an exit. Given the abysmal state of public goods, Indians at every income level often find it better to exit state provisions. Despite an increase in our school-going population, public school enrolment has actually fallen by 11.1 million, while enrolments in private schools rose by 16 million between 2010-11 and 2014-15. When government schools are of poor quality, even low-income families exit the school system and send their children to budget private schools. Both slums and posh housing communities have moved to privately supplied water and garbage collection services. Firms and job seekers relocate to better governed areas, resulting in interstate migration. The highest level is emigration to another country, a complete exit from the nation state. But this imposes very high costs, and emigration is not an option for most, especially for minor grievances.

Their other option is to use their voice. When exit is costly, we see individuals use criticism, feedback and protests to improve the institution in decline. Often, it is the highest level of state functions, like war or citizenship policy, rather than local functions like water and garbage, that stirs up individuals to voice themselves. And so, people write in the press, or express themselves on social media, and protest on the streets.

The combination of a CAA with a nationwide NRC has virtually no exit option. Even the possibility of detention or deportation affects all; and people across social, income, and caste strata may not easily meet the burden an NRC may pose. Of course, as in all cases, the rich and privileged have better options, including bribery to acquire “missing" documents as an attempt to exit the problem. But the lack of actual exit options and the uncertainty posed by even the threat of detention has evoked protests.

The Union government is only a few months into a five-year term. If Indians are truly displeased with the government, the choice provided by the country’s democratic process is more than four years away. That may largely explain students taking to the streets. Governments tend to respond better to criticism, even early in their term in power, if there is a strong opposition (i.e. the threat of a possible substitute in the future). Strong majorities in Parliament and weak oppositions not only make election-occasioned exits more difficult, they also make it less likely that a government would respond quickly to criticism.

But there is another aspect to Hirschman’s argument that is often ignored—loyalty. The higher the loyalty to an institution, the greater the inclination of individuals to use voice instead of exiting. Hirschman argues that high levels of loyalty are at play when exit options exist and individuals still use their voice to air their grievances. And, this usually leads to better outcomes.

This is why it is clear that protesters are displaying high levels of loyalty by making their voices heard regardless of whether or not they themselves are excluded by the CAA. The protests have had mass readings of the Preamble to the Constitution and recitations of the national anthem, with the national flag being waved. These protesters are not unpatriotic. Their very voice is an outcome of loyalty. They don’t wish to go to Pakistan or anywhere else, but stay and fight for their preferences.

These protests may wane as protesters grow tired, but not die. They will surge back with the next grievance. When there is high loyalty and virtually no exit options, the use of their voice is their only choice. And unless the government is willing to stifle protests for a long time to come or explicitly roll back its manifesto commitment to an NRC, that voice will speak.

Shruti Rajagopalan is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, US

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