Did India just transit from a 50-50 to 30-70 democracy?
The first part of this article analyses a YouTube interview between Ramachandra Guha and Karan Thapar that was posted on August 16, 2022, by The Wire. The second part talks about the downgrading of India's democracy as represented by a few global reports and their assessments.
Synopsis of the Interview
Our democracy has always had flaws and imperfections. When Congress was in power, it began to politicise the police and civil services, undermine the independence of the courts, and topple elected state governments. However, the current form of ‘leadership’ has advanced and deepened this process significantly.
The renowned historian of modern India, Ramachandra Guha, claims that the country is currently a 30:70 democracy; in an interview with Karan Thapar he stated how India has fared in the 75 years since attaining independence in August 1947. He said, 15 years ago, when India celebrated its 60th anniversary of independence, India was a 50:50 democracy and a flawed democracy. Today he says it’s slipped significantly further.
Guha outlined three leading causes for why he thinks India's democracy has weakened so much during the past 15 years. The first is weakening institutions like the press, the legislature, the legal system, and the civil service. Second, the ruling party's majoritarianism and deliberate attempts to convert Muslims in India to second-class nationals. Third, is a personality cult around Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
With this move, according to Guha, Modi has joined the ranks of dictators like Hitler, Mussolini, Gaddafi, Kim il Sung, and Saddam Hussein. According to the historian, "the cult of Modi will be harmful to India," just as the personality cult surrounding Mao was detrimental to China.
Guha stated in the interview that the way Muslims are currently treated in India is "an entire and total betrayal of what we said to Muslims in 1947." It was "terrifying," he said. Guha said that although discrimination against Muslims predates Narendra Modi, it has become “explicit under this regime” and “legitimate”.
What do the global assessments represent for India’s Democracy?
India was degraded from a "free democracy" to a "partially free democracy" in Freedom House's annual assessment of political rights and liberties around the world. In its most recent study on democracy, the Sweden-based V-Dem Institute took a harsher stance. It claimed that India had turned into an "electoral autocracy." And in the most recent Democracy Index issued by The Economist Intelligence Unit, India, which is referred to as a "flawed democracy," dropped two spots to 53rd place last month.
The rankings hold the “nationalist” BJP government of PM Modi accountable for the deterioration of democracy. According to them, PM Modi has presided over an increase in violence, particularly against Muslims, intimidation of journalists, greater pressure on human rights organisations, and intimidation of activists. They further claim that as a result, the nation's political and civil liberties have gotten worse.
According to Freedom House, civil rights have deteriorated since PM Modi took office in 2014, and India's "fall from the upper ranks of free nations" may have a more negative impact on global democratic ideals.
How trustworthy are these rankings?
To be fair, these rankings are global exercises. The most recent report on political rights and civil liberties published by Freedom House examines changes in 195 nations and 15 territories. The largest worldwide dataset on democracy, produced by V-Dem, spans 202 nations from 1789 to 2020. The Democracy Index from the Economist Intelligence Unit provides a quick assessment of the state of democracy in 165 nations and two territories. Also, there are "rules and parameters" governing these rankings.
With around 30 million data points and more than 3,500 academics and nation specialists, V-Dem claims to measure "hundreds of different aspects of democracy."
The Economist's Democracy Index is based on measuring the electoral process and pluralism, the efficiency of the executive branch, political involvement, political culture, and civil rights. A country receives points for each of its political rights and civil liberties indicators according to Freedom House, which also claims to utilise a two-tiered methodology consisting of scores and status.
According to a University of Pennsylvania study, these rankings are the result of both quantitative assessments, such as the allocation of seats among political parties in the national legislature and qualitative judgments, such as assessing the efficacy of anti-corruption measures.
It takes expert judgement to decide which metrics to include and how to weigh each appropriately when combining these signs into an index.
Is the downgrade of India unusual?
According to rankings, democracy seems to be in jeopardy around the world despite its enduring appeal.
According to V-Dem, 68% of the world's population resides in 87 states that are electoral autocracies. Only 14% of people live in liberal democracies, the group claims, and their numbers are dwindling.
According to Freedom House, less than 20% of the world's population currently resides in a free country, which is the lowest percentage since 1995. And just 75 of the 167 countries and territories covered by the model, or 44.9% of them, are deemed democracies in the 2020 Democracy Index.
Do these rankings favour left-wing regimes over right-wing ones?
Paul Staniland, an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago, has investigated how V-Dem has measured India's democracy since its independence in 1947.
He discovered that during the Emergency in the middle of the 1970s, when Indira Gandhi, the former prime minister and member of the Congress party, banned civil freedoms, India's rating was lower.
Compared to the politically-controlled 1950s–1960s, which were dominated by the Congress party, the 1990s appear to have been more democratic. Between 1998 and 2004, during the BJP-led coalition administration, the ranking did not significantly fall. Therefore, there isn't a clear anti-right-wing prejudice. Indeed, the UPA government led by Congress experienced a very minor decline in ranks from 2005 to 2013.
Final Thoughts: How helpful are these rankings?
These rankings are helpful for conducting research and seeing relatively wide trends, which academics find interesting. They are useless if one wants to analyse minute variations in scores across years or between nations with broadly similar ratings.
A portion of this also touches on the fundamental questions of how we define democracy and who gets to define it. The majority of non-academics would find it unbelievable that a small group of research assistants and country specialists could determine whether or not a nation is an "electoral autocrat" when hundreds of millions of its residents would disagree. In other words, this is an example of intellectual discourse and conceptions operating rather far from actual experience. The operational ideas across the two areas are very distinct.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Critical Script or its editor.
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