The cost of the protests — for the BJP, and the State| Opinion
They have crossed a threshold and acquired a mass character. This will have an economic impact
On January 5, a mob entered Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) purportedly wielding rocks, lathis, and acid, carrying out a brutal attack on a section of students and faculty members — while the Delhi Police, which reports directly to the central government, allegedly stood down and refused to act.
After the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) was passed, protests at Jamia Milia University and Aligarh Muslim University were crushed as police forces entered hostels and libraries. Dalit activist Chandrasekhar Azad has been under arrest since December 21, despite a serious health condition, ever since he led a protest near Jama Masjid in Delhi. In Uttar Pradesh, there have been,allegedly, mass arrests of activists and police-administered beatings, primarily in Muslim homes, after its chief minister vowed “revenge” on the protesters.
The pattern is clear. When people protest, the State will repress it. For the government and its supporters, this is more than mere stifling of dissent. It also simultaneously allows the current dispensation to polarise the electorate by demonising protesters — as Marxists, jihadist Muslims, or anti-nationals — without giving the protesters any chance to defend themselves.
Yet, the protests continue to grow and spread across India.
At first blush, the sudden proliferation of public protest, without any genuine opposition party or leader coordination, may seem surprising. But this is often how it happens. The great sociologist, Mark Granovetter, posited a theory of “thresholds” where frustration gets converted into mass protest. The logic is simple. There may be many people who are upset with the government, but there is a coordination problem. People don’t want to protest alone or with a small number of people; so, they only hit the streets when see sufficiently many others on the streets.
When more people hit the streets, the “threshold” for many citizens is met to join protests, but as more people join, even more “thresholds” are met and the protests get bigger. This spiraling logic explains why protests beget bigger protests and eventually mass protest.
We have seen exactly this logic at play recently. The protests after the nullification of Article 370 were relatively small, and they grew only marginally after the Ayodhya verdict, before the eruption of protest we saw as CAA was enacted. Many have said that the protests require political coordination by leaders and parties to survive, but that would kill the diverse character of these protests and give the current dispensation what it wants — an opportunity to paint the protests as the handiwork of a few political agents.
In fact, the opposite is true. The protests have been effective precisely because of their mass character. Rather than being anointed, a true opposition leader will emerge when he or she is able to gain the trust of this diverse array of protestors.
It is exactly this kind of protest that causes problems for a dominant party like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). As I have documented in an earlier column, the preservation of the dominant nature of the BJP requires an extraordinary mobilisation of financial resources.
The costs of repression are even higher.
First, Internet shutdowns and curfews cripple basic economic activities. Shops are often closed, credit card machines don’t work, and interaction required for basic commercial activities are greatly reduced. The Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) estimates that Internet shutdowns alone cost $3 billion in losses between 2012 and 2017. The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce estimates that the shutdown has cost $2.4 billion in Kashmir since it commenced on August 5 in Jammu and Kashmir.
Second, the costs of stationing police, paramilitary and military forces are very high. There is, of course, the direct costs associated with a security lockdown. But the indirect costs are arguably more severe. Those who would otherwise invest in India are likely to be spooked by attenuated economic activities. This is to say nothing of the opportunity cost. Government spending on repression is fundamentally inefficient, as it pays a cost that further retards growth and stifles its citizens, unlike investing in public goods like roads and schools which develops the future of its citizens.
This is a scenario that has played out many times across the world — protests that are genuinely mass-level in character challenge a ruling dispensation and the State, then, expends huge resources in trying to repress them. The consequences are also clear. The money eventually dries up for the regime, and cracks appear. It may take days, months, years, or decades, but unless the dominant party is willing to negotiate and compromise with protestors, the party — and eventually, the State — bleeds.
Today, the cracks are beginning to appear. Unlike oil-rich countries, which can fund autocratic and dominant parties through wealth generated from natural resources, an Indian party must largely raise its wealth from taxes and contributions from citizens. The repressive behaviours of the ruling dispensation are showing their costs. In an environment where the economic slowdown has already had an impact in terms of a dip in revenue, both direct and indirect, the protests will further impact economic activity. This will then force the government to cut expenditure in the Budget. And this, in turn, will keep the country trapped in a vicious cycle, with potentially adverse consequences for the BJP itself.
At the national level, the BJP may look as dominant as ever today. But India is an extraordinarily diverse country, and popular frustrations are starting to show their teeth. The ruling dispensation will need to start negotiating with its citizens, rather than ramming through big bang reforms, backed by repression.
If the BJP fails to do so, it will face the consequences.