In just a matter of days, three prominent Western think-tanks that monitor “democracy” around the world downgraded India’s overall democracy ranking. While the US-based Freedom House moved India from the “free” to the “partly free” category, the Sweden-based V-Dem Institute labelled India an “Electoral Autocracy.” Not to be left behind, the UK-based Economist Intelligence Unit described India as a “flawed democracy,” with its overall ranking falling by two places to 53. Writes Avatans Kumar
These institutions squarely blame Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP-led government for eroding the spirit of democracy. Under PM Modi’s stewardship, they claim, civil liberties in India have declined. The pressure on freedom of expression, the media, and civil societies have gone the furthest, they say. They mention instances of attacks on journalists and minorities, etc., to bolster their claims. And by ‘minority,’ believe it or not, they almost always mean 170 million strong (about 15 per cent of India’s population) Muslims. In an apparent reference to the passage of India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the revocation of Article 370 of its Constitution, they say that PM Modi’s policies have “fomented anti-Muslim feeling and religious strife and damaged the political fabric of the country.”
Studies suggest that throughout the world — across cultures and languages — the general understanding of democracy is common. The concept of democracy is broadly actualized in terms of freedom and civil liberties. In most cases, when one defines the abstract notion of democracy, one is thinking in terms of these concrete democratic outcomes. Free and fair elections are one of the defining elements of democracy. Most democracy ranking institutions, such as Freedom House, V-Dem, etc., focus on institutions and procedures of democratic governance in their reporting. For example, if the citizens of the countries concerned can participate in free and fair elections, the criteria of democracy are met.
However, democracy is a concept, according to Russell Dalton, Doh Shin, and Willy Jou (Understanding Democracy, 2007), that has “a variety of potential meanings, and it is not simple to grasp or define… Even in advanced industrial democracies, research often highlights the limited political knowledge and sophistication of mass publics.” To many, the real meaning of democracy is in its deliverables. For some, democracy may mean ‘RāmRājya.’ it may mean getting electricity to her village and house from her government. For some others, it may mean getting access to a bank account, the right to pursue one’s faith, or the right to own firearms. Yet, for some others, it may simply mean having a toilet in the house, relatively inexpensive food prices, or a job in the Government.
India has deep roots in democracy. One of the earliest republican states was founded in India much before the start of the Common Era (6th century BCE). The Uthiramerur temple inscription in Tamil Nadu has one of the earliest (7th-9th century CE) descriptions of some of the essential elements of a democratic process — conducting an election. Indian culture, owing to its Dharmic roots, is naturally compatible with democracy. India is the land of ‘one truth, many names’ – ‘ekam sat viprabahudhāvadanti.’ Pluralism as the core democracy is inherent to Indic culture. Indic pluralism promotes not just tolerance but also a mutual respect for other’s ideas and opinions. Indian Knowledge Tradition is not dogmatic, and it has a long tradition of intellectual debates and disputation spanning over several millennia.
For their part, these institutions do excellent academic work, and their methodology is rigorous. That, however, does not mean their work is perfect and objective. Data models are as good as the assumptions put into them. The data used in this exercise itself are faulty. Many of the news items and opinions published in India’s English language media, which the ranking institutions rely on almost exclusively, have anti-Modi, anti-BJP, and anti-Hindu bias. Simultaneously, the data is also subject to Big-Tech manipulation, a phenomenon rampant during the Covid-19 pandemic and the recently concluded US presidential elections.
India witnessed one of the most brazen attacks on the press’s freedom when the police manhandled, arrested, and allegedly tortured one of India’s most vocal TV anchors. The arrest, however, was carried out not by the Modi government. Law-and-order in India is a State subject. A coalition Government runs the State involved in this gross violation of the Press’s freedom in alliance with India’s main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, not PM Modi’s BJP. The fact that a simple Internet search on the subject “Modi’s free speech crackdown” lists more than 5 lakh articles smacks in the face of the “suppression dissent” argument.
The democracy ranking institutions have credibility issues of their own. Freedom House is “substantially” funded by the US Government and was reported to have been involved in “clandestine activities” in Iran. V-Dem Institute has some of the most vocal Left-leaning critics of the Modi government on its team. The Economist has been open in its criticism of the Modi Government and had openly endorsed the Opposition in the elections.
As Paul Staniland, associate professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, reportedly said, no one is forcing anyone to “agree” with the rankings. “There are important alternative approaches to measuring” these rankings.” But given the clout of these institutions and the amount of noise they make in the English-speaking intellectuals’ colonised elitosphere,their misleading quality is not merely an academic concern. They also shape public perception and public policies, and international relations. It has real-life consequences. It is hard to brush them aside.
Avatans Kumar is a JNU and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign alumnus and writes frequently on the topics of Indic Knowledge Tradition, language, culture, and current affairs.