(Based on an article of the same title by Salvatore Babones, Associate Professor at the University of Sydney; some of the spellings have been changed from the “English” style to the “American” style (e.g., organisation changed to organization)
Indian democracy is under siege. As India celebrates 75 years as an independent country, major international democracy rankings suggest that Indian democracy is in serious decline or that India may no longer be a democracy at all. Whether or not these evaluations are credible, they have the power to shape popular perceptions and ultimately influence international affairs. Such consequences would be well-deserved—if they are grounded in reality.
If, however, the academics, intellectuals, and think-tankers who staff the major rankings providers are themselves the barbarians at the gate, maligning a poor but proud country in a bid to impose their own parochial political positions, then a moral reckoning is in order.
The democracy rankings marketplace is crowded, with dozens of organizations competing for the attention of the world’s media. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), Variety of Democracies (V-DEM), and Freedom House are by far the most influential rankings, with the first two specifically focusing on democracy (and its components), while Freedom House’s rankings (which predate the other two) have long been used in academic research as a proxy for democracy. All three organizations have been staunchly critical of the BJP and the role it plays in Indian politics, and the narrative justifications that accompany each of their rankings feature specific examples of ways in which the BJP has undermined Indian democracy.
If any cherry-picking has been done, it has been done by the ranking organizations; their proffered examples must, if taken to be typical representations of India’s political reality, bear the burden of justifying the shrill language of their alarming appraisals of the state of Indian democracy.
The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)
The EIU is the research and consulting arm of the firm that publishes the Economist magazine. The EIU’s rating of Indian democracy reached an all-time low in 2021 when the organization warned of “democratic backsliding under the leadership of Narendra Modi … whose policies have fomented anti-Muslim feeling, and religious strife [and] damaged the political fabric of the country”.
As primary evidence to support this claim, the EIU cited “the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 [CAA] … [which] introduces a religious element to the conceptualization of Indian citizenship, a step that many critics see as undermining the secular basis of the Indian state”.
Salvatore Babones’ comments: The CAA created a path to citizenship for non-Muslim religious refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. All three of these countries are Islamic republics in which Islam is the official state religion, and non-Muslims face serious official and/or societal persecution. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the threats faced by non-Muslims are constant and extreme; in Bangladesh, they are episodic but nonetheless serious. Prima facie, it seems quite sensible for India to grant blanket protective status to non-Muslim immigrants from countries where non-Muslims are widely persecuted but to continue to require Muslim immigrants from those countries to give specific evidence of persecution in order to qualify for asylum. It is hard to see why Muslim immigrants from officially Muslim countries should automatically qualify for refugee status upon immigration to India.
The other major issue raised by the EIU in 2021 was the fact that “Mr. Modi participated in a ground-breaking ceremony for a Hindu temple on the site of a 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh.”
Babones’ comments: …There seems to be no clear reason why PM Modi should not have taken part in the legally-sanctioned groundbreaking for the Ram Mandir in 2020.
In its 2022 report, the EIU found a slight improvement in the quality of India’s democracy, citing “year-long protests by farmers [that] eventually forced the government to repeal the farm laws that it had introduced in 2020”.
Babones’ comments: This seems to show the EIU taking a political position on lawful legislation; an evaluation of the quality of democracy should be agnostic with respect to agricultural policy, wherever the sympathies of the evaluators may lie…The EIU explained that “the victory of the protesters, as well as some election defeats for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, showed that there are mechanisms and institutions in place to allow government accountability to the electorate between national elections.” This assumes that the protesting farmers represented the opinion of the national electorate, an empirical claim that is far from certain.
Varieties of Democracies (V-DEM)
The 2017 V-DEM annual report briefly raised concerns about India, but it was the 2018 report that raised these to the level of a two-page focus section, with Modi’s India being identified alongside Donald Trump’s America as “backsliders on democracy”. The 2020 V-DEM report similarly classed India alongside the United States, claiming that “India has continued on a path of steep decline, to the extent it has almost lost its status as a democracy”.
It was, however, the 2021 V-DEM report that sensationally reclassified India as an “electoral autocracy,” with the transition found retroactively to have occurred in 2019 (the year of the BJP’s reelection to a second term)…In reclassifying India as an “electoral autocracy,” V-DEM noted, in particular, a decline in “the autonomy of the election management body,” the Election Commission of India (ECI). The V-DEM report did not provide details on this, and a search of India’s major media turned up a few allegations of ECI malfeasance. The most serious was a 2019 open letter signed by a group of 66 retired civil servants decrying “the ECI’s pusillanimity in coming down with a heavy hand” on alleged BJP violations of election law. The specific allegations made by these officials were (1) that PM Modi had announced a successful weapons test during the campaign period, (2) that a biographical documentary complementary of Modi had been released during the campaign period, (3) that a private broadcaster had aired a television series complementary of Modi, (4) that a private cable TV service had added a pro-Modi news channel to its basic service package, and (5) – (9) that further questionable statements and decisions had been made by BJP-affiliated officials on technical points that would be difficult to summarise here.
Babones’ comments: Although vehemently opposed to the BJP, the signatories alleged no serious violations of election procedures. The only other major controversy surrounding the ECI to have been reported in the press was a complaint that the ECI allowed political campaigning to continue during the coronavirus pandemic.
The V-DEM report went on to decry “the diminishing of freedom of expression, the media, and civil society.” To support this claim, V-DEM noted that “over 7,000 people have been charged with sedition after the BJP assumed power, and most of the accused are critics of the ruling party”.
Babones’ comments: Since the BJP came to office in 2014, only 399 sedition cases have actually been filed by prosecutors (not all of them in BJP-administered states), with relatively few cases resulting in conviction. Whatever the merit of these cases, it should be noted that the number of sedition accusations brought has been relatively constant over time. The very source cited by V-DEM as documentation noted that “of the 11,000 people accused of sedition in the past decade [construed as the 11 years 2010-2020], nearly two-thirds of charges have been filed since 2014 when Modi was first elected prime minister”. A simple calendar calculation shows that the BJP was in office for less than 60% of the period under consideration. In other words, the rate of filing sedition allegations (which is, in any case, not under the control of the central government) has actually declined under the BJP.
Along similar lines, V-DEM claimed that the “law on defamation … has been used frequently to silence journalists and news outlets that take exception to policies of the BJP government”.…A 2016 report from Human Rights Watch was cited in support of this claim.
Babones’ comments: That report itself cited a series of cases from 2002, 2012, and 2013—i.e., before the BJP took office.
Finally, the V-DEM report claimed that “civil society is also being muzzled in the autocratization process” through the use of the “Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) to restrict the entry, exit, and functioning of Civil Society Organisations.”
Babones’ comments: The FCRA was passed in 2010—i.e., before the BJP took office—but was amended by the BJP government in 2020. These amendments were passed unanimously by both houses of India’s parliament, so they can hardly be considered controversial. Like many countries (including Australia and the United States), India closely regulates the use of foreign funds by domestic civil society organizations. Whether or not India’s regulations are too tight is a matter for debate, but considering that the changes made to the regulations under the BJP government were unanimously endorsed by all members of India’s parliament, it seems odd to cite them as evidence of a democratic breakdown that is supposedly being instigated by the governing party alone.
Freedom House is a quasi-official Washington think tank that is primarily funded by the US government….In 2014, Freedom House started publishing the detailed numerical data behind its ratings, yielding an informal score (not used by Freedom House itself) that runs from 0-100 points. India’s score on this index was relatively stable throughout the BJP’s first term in office, bouncing between 75 and 78 points, but dropped precipitously after the 2019 election, bottoming out at 66 points in 2022. That corresponded to an international rankings drop from tied-77th to tied-85th in the world. Interestingly, America’s own democracy ranking on this US-government-funded index is only tied-57th, below Argentina, Mongolia, and all of Western Europe.
Freedom House continues with a claim that “the political rights of India’s Muslims continue to be threatened” by the CAA (which applies only to non-citizens) and the creation of a national registry of citizens. Freedom House notes that “many observers believe that the register’s purpose is to disenfranchise Muslim voters by effectively classifying them as illegal immigrants.”
Babones’ comments: This suggests that Freedom House has proactively downgraded India on suggestions that it might disenfranchise Muslims in the future.
A more serious set of charges relating to the status of India’s minority Muslim population are concerned with freedom of religion and equal protection of the laws….Freedom House acknowledged that “the Indian state is formally secular, and freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed,” but expressed reservations about the criminalization of cow slaughter and forced religious conversion.
Babones’ comments: On its face, there is nothing here to violate freedom of religion, and indeed the laws against forced conversion could be taken to represent a strengthening of secular values.
A second set of serious charges against India involves the suggestion that “journalists risk harassment, death threats, and physical violence in the course of their work.” Here Freedom House cites figures from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) claiming that 5 journalists were killed in India in 2021, “the highest figure for any country.”
Babones’ comments: Referring to the CPJ’s own data, India’s 5 journalist deaths represented 11% of the world total. In this context, it is worth noting that India constitutes 18% of the world’s population and 21% of the world’s population outside China—where journalist deaths are not included in the CPJ data.
Along similar lines, Freedom House alleges that “academic freedom has significantly weakened in recent years, as intimidation of professors, students, and institutions over political and religious issues has increased.”
Babones’ comments: It is true that Hindu nationalist student groups have recently become more outspoken in criticizing their professors, but student protest has historically been regarded as a healthy sign for democracy, irrespective of the students’ political persuasions.
Freedom House further criticizes India for strengthening the FCRA (covered above), for the fact that “Several key Supreme Court rulings in recent years have been favorable to the BJP,” for not making sufficient progress in reducing corruption, for not making sufficient progress in suppressing violent insurgencies, for lack of support for migrant workers during the coronavirus emergency, for widespread domestic violence, for the persistence of child labor, and for the death in custody (of natural causes) of an 84-year-old Jesuit priest who had been arrested on charges of supporting terrorism. It is not clear how any of these are directly related to political rights or civil liberties. In any case, Freedom House does not claim that these problems have substantially worsened over the last three years, the period when it claims India fell down the scale from ‘free’ to only ‘partially free.’
Challenges and reform
Everyone knows that India is the world’s largest democracy. Few realize that it is one of the world’s oldest….Even fewer people realize that India is by far the world’s poorest democracy to have achieved a meaningful record of repeated elections and peaceful transitions of power.
Many of the attributes of Indian society that appear from the perspective of Washington, London, or Gothenburg to be failures of democracy may actually reflect the challenges of maintaining order in a low-resource environment. To cite one relatively trivial example, V-DEM downgrades India’s score on its ‘egalitarian democracy’ scale because India’s social programs tend to be targeted to help the neediest, whereas the political scientists at the V-Dem Institute consider universal social welfare programs to be more inclusive. But would universal social programs really be more ‘democratic’ for a poor country like India?
The social exclusion of Muslims—to be specific, of poor Muslims—in India is a serious problem and one that should be addressed. Nonetheless, [the] international assumption that all Muslims are estranged from the BJP is a lazy generalization. Survey data from America’s highly-respected Pew Research Center show that 19% of India’s Muslims actually voted for BJP candidates in the 2019 national elections, which is all the more impressive in light of the fact that only 49% of the country’s Hindus voted for the supposedly ‘Hindu nationalist’ BJP. Mr. Modi has recently made the recruitment of poor Muslims to the BJP an electoral priority.
Although India does face challenges, the stridently negative appraisals of Indian democracy published by the three major democracy rating organizations seem wildly disproportionate to the actual evidence marshalled to support them. In several instances, they smack of intentional deception. Given that all three organizations rely heavily on expert evaluations, it is difficult to escape the suggestion that they may have unwittingly (or perhaps even wittingly) been drawn into taking sides in India’s domestic politics.
No expert is unbiased, and it is inevitable that any properly-credentialed pool of democracy experts would be disproportionately atheist, internationalist, pro-intellectual, and of a liberal or socialist bent. But experts have a responsibility to strive for objectivity by being aware of their biases and consciously struggling to overcome them. The narrative justifications that accompany the international rankings of Indian democracy show little evidence of such humble reflexivity. Instead, they are suffused with wanton speculation, misleading statistics, and uncritical reproductions of activist accusations.
The lack of any compelling case against Indian democracy reflects very poorly on the three major international democracy rating organizations. The least they could do in commemoration of independent India’s 75th anniversary is offer an apology to the country—and to its proper rulers, the Indian people.
- Economist Intelligence Unit, 2021, Democracy Index 2020: In Sickness and in Health?
- Economist Intelligence Unit, 2022, Democracy Index 2021: The China Challenge.
- Salvatore Babones, 2021, ” India’s Rich Farmers Are Holding Up Reforms Designed to Help the Poor,” Foreign Policy, March 30.
- V-DEM Institute, 2018, Democracy Report 2018: Democracy for All?
- V-DEM Institute, 2020, Democracy Report 2020: Autocratization Surges—Resistance Grows.
- V-DEM Institute, 2021, Democracy Report 2021: Autocratization Turns Viral.
- “Letter to Hon’ble President of India,” 2019, constitutionalconduct.com.
- Deeptiman Tiwary, 2022, “399 Sedition Cases since 2014, Pendency High”, Indian Express, May 31.
- Samar Halarnkar, 2021, “India Is Turning to Colonial-Era Laws to Silence Journalists,” OpenDemocracy, February 3.
- Committee to Protect Journalists, 2021, “45 Journalists and Media Workers Killed”, cpj.org.
- Jonathan Evans, 2021, “In India, Hindu Support for Modi’s Party Varies by Region and Is Tied to Beliefs about Diet and Language, Pew Research Center, August 5.
- Rakesh Mohan Chaturvedi, 2022, “PM Modi Reaches Out to Pasmanda Muslims; Asks Cadre not to Make Mistakes of Opposition,” Economic Times, July 3.