'Electoral autocracy': The downgrading of India's democracy

Soutik Biswas
India correspondent

Published
image copyrightGetty Images
image captionMr Modi's government has been accused of targeting minorities

India's democracy is taking a rankings battering these days.

For a country which prides itself as the world's largest democracy, this is troubling news.

So what's going on?

Earlier this month, in its annual report on global political rights and liberties, US-based non-profit Freedom House downgraded India from a free democracy to a "partially free democracy".

Last week, Sweden-based V-Dem Institute was harsher in its latest report on democracy. It said India had become an "electoral autocracy". And last month, India, described as a "flawed democracy", slipped two places to 53rd position in the latest Democracy Index published by The Economist Intelligence Unit.

The rankings blame Mr Modi and his Hindu nationalist BJP government for the backsliding of democracy. Under Mr Modi's watch, they say, there has been increased pressure on human rights groups, intimidation of journalists and activists, and a spate of attacks, especially against Muslims. This, they add, has led to a deterioration of political and civil liberties in the country.

Freedom House said civil liberties have been in decline since Mr Modi came to power in 2014, and that India's "fall from the upper ranks of free nations" could have a more damaging effect on the world's democratic standards.

image copyrightAFP
image captionMr Modi won a landslide election in 2019

V-Dem said the "diminishing of freedom of expression, the media, and civil society have gone the furthest" during Mr Modi's rule, and that far as censorship goes India was "as autocratic as Pakistan and worse than its neighbours Bangladesh and Nepal".

And The Democracy Index said the "democratic backsliding" by authorities and "crackdowns" on civil liberties had led to a decline in India's rankings. Mr Modi's policies, it said, had "fomented anti-Muslim feeling and religious strife and damaged the political fabric of the country".

How has India's government reacted?

Not surprisingly, the flurry of downgrades have riled Mr Modi's government and cast a shadow on the global image of India's democracy.

On the Freedom House report, the foreign ministry said that India had "robust institutions and well established democratic practices" and did not "need sermons especially from those who cannot get their basics right." The political judgements of the report were "inaccurate and distorted", it said. In parliament, the chairman of the upper house, Venkaiah Naidu, did not allow an opposition MP to pose a question related to the V-Dem report saying: "All countries which are commenting on India should first look inward and then comment on India."

At the weekend, Foreign Minister S Jaishankar came out with the strongest denunciation of these reports.

image copyrightHindustan Times
image captionThe freedom report criticised the government's response to protests against a controversial citizenship bill

"You use the dichotomy of democracy and autocracy. You want the truthful answer…it is called hypocrisy. Because you have a set of self-appointed custodians of the world, who find it very difficult to stomach that somebody in India is not looking for their approval, is not willing to play the game they want to be played," Mr Jaishankar told a news network.

"So they invent their rules, their parameters, they pass their judgements and then make out as though this is some kind of global exercise".

How reliable are these rankings?

To be fair, these rankings are global exercises.

Freedom House's latest global report on political rights and civil liberties covers developments in 195 countries and 15 territories.

V-Dem claims to produce the largest global dataset on democracy involving 202 countries from 1789 to 2020.

The Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index gives a snapshot on the health of democracy in 165 countries and two territories.

Also, these rankings do have "rules and parameters".

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image captionSeveral minority groups have complained of discrimination in recent years

V-Dem says it measures "hundreds of different attributes of democracy" with almost 30 million data points, involving more than 3,500 scholars and country experts.

The Economist's Democracy Index is based on measuring electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, political culture and civil liberties". And Freedom House says it uses a two-tiered system consisting of scores and status - a country is awarded points for each of its political rights and civil liberties indicators.

Such rankings, according to a study by University of Pennsylvania, are the result of quantitative assessments - like distribution of seats in the national legislature among political parties - and qualitative judgements, like evaluating whether safeguards against corruption are effective.

Aggregating these indicators into an index is a subjective exercise, depending on the judgements of experts to identify metrics to include and how to weight each appropriately.

image copyrightEPA
image captionMore than 600 million Indians voted in the 2019 elections

Yonatan L Morse, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Connecticut and a country expert for V-Dem, agrees there is a "degree of subjectivity" in assessing democracy.

But Prof Morse says V- Dem does a number of things "really well" to address this: a comprehensive list of questions to measure important elements of electoral democracy (suffrage and clean elections, among others), and rating clean elections by assessing different factors. Each country is rated by a number of experts. Differences of opinion among experts are transformed into a single measure using statistical models that help forecast outcomes more reliably.

Also most rankings do not impose a single definition of democracy - experts agree that an "electoral democracy" is really the bare minimum.

Is India's downgrade unusual?

Going by rankings, democracy, despite its enduring appeal, appears to be in trouble all over the world.

Electoral autocracies, according to V-Dem, are now present in 87 states that are 鑫航app to 68% of the global population. Liberal democracies, the group says, are diminishing, and are 鑫航app to only 14% of the people.

Freedom House reckons less than 20% of the world's population now lives in a free country, the smallest proportion since 1995. And in the 2020 Democracy Index, only 75 of the 167 countries and territories covered by the model - or 44.9% - are considered to be democracies.

"But, what concerns a lot of people is the breakdown of democracy in established cases. India is the latest example of this following Hungary and Turkey. The Indian case stands out given the size of its population and past record as a successful model of multi-ethnic democracy," says Prof Morse.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionJournalists have come under attack in India

He says India follows the pattern observed in other cases of recent democratic breakdown.

"Populist leaders first capture many of the gatekeepers in the state (for example, they politicise appointments to the civil service or remove oversight from appointments to the judiciary). They then often repress freedom of expression by censoring media, limiting academic freedom, or curtailing civil society. Populist leaders often polarise society and delegitimise the political opposition, often presenting them as enemies of the state or people. What follows is often violation of electoral integrity itself and outright fraud," says Prof Morse.

Do these rankings have a bias against right-wing governments?

Paul Staniland, associate professor of political science at University of Chicago, has examined V-Dem's measurement of India since Independence in 1947 in its democracy index.

He found India's ranking was lower during the Emergency in the mid-1970s when Indira Gandhi, the former prime minister belonging to the Congress party, suspended civil liberties.

The 1990s show up as more democratic than the 1950s-1960s, a decade which was politically dominated by the Congress party. There is no major decline in ranking during the BJP-led coalition government between 1998 and 2004.

"So there's not an obvious anti-right-wing bias. Indeed, there's a very slight drop [in rankings] from 2005 to 2013 under the Congress-led UPA government. V-Dem is not a huge fan of Indira Gandhi's rule in 1970s or early 1980s."

"No one is forcing anyone to "agree" with these. There are important alternative approaches to measuring these things and lots of important caveats about how precise they can be. But there are a lot of reasons to think they capture important big-picture dynamics and trends," says Prof Staniland.

How useful are these rankings?

Rohan Mukherjee, an assistant professor of political science, at Yale-NUS College, says these rankings are useful for research and identifying very broad trends that academics are interested in.

"They are unhelpful if one wants to minutely parse differences in scores from one year to the next, or between countries with very similar scores," he told me.

Some of this also gets to the heart of how we define democracy and who gets to define democracy.

Prof Mukherjee says most non-academics would be incredulous that a handful of research assistants and country experts get to decide that a country is an "electoral autocracy" while hundreds of millions of that country's citizens would disagree.

"So really this is an instance of academic discourse and concepts operating at a considerable distance from lived experience. The operational concepts across the two domains are very different."

Democracy in the V-Dem dataset, says Prof Mukherjee, has a precise and multi-faceted definition, many aspects of which the vast majority of Indians do not keep in their heads as they go about their lives and think about the political system in which they live.

"That's not to say that their experience is any less valid, but it explains the disconnect," he says.

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