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Democracy, interrupted?

Even as India debates civil liberties and democratic functions, a global report, Democracy Index 2012, brackets us as a ‘flawed democracy’. Experts debate how true is this? Samar Khurshid reports.

delhi Updated: Apr 28, 2013 01:51 IST
Samar Khurshid
Samar Khurshid
Hindustan Times
indian democracy,Democracy Index 2012,Economist Intelligence Unit

While democracy was at a standstill in 2012, neither progressing nor regressing, India took baby steps on its own path towards a deeper and more representative system.

According to the Democracy Index 2012 recently released by the Economist Intelligence Unit, India, the world’s largest democracy, is now marginally more democratic than it was in 2011 ranking 38 (up from 39) with an overall score of 7.52.

The index was first published in 2006, with later reports in 2008, 2010 and 2011. In the first index, India ranked at 35 and has since slipped.

The index judged 167 countries according to five parameters: electoral process and pluralism; functioning of government; political participation; political culture; and civil liberties. Accordingly, countries are classified as full democracies (25 countries), flawed democracies (54), hybrid regimes (37) and authoritarian regimes (51).

While India maintained a status quo on all criteria, the only field which showed improvement was political participation — up from 5 to 6.11 out of a possible score of 10. With an overall score between 6-7.9, India lies in the ‘flawed democracy’ category.

Countries with scores between 8-10, such as Norway, are classified as ‘full democracies’. Those falling between 4-5.9 are in the ‘hybrid regime’ bracket, for instance Pakistan. Finally, authoritarian regimes were at the bottom (below 4).

But the report’s classification itself might be flawed says Peter DeSouza, professor, Centre for Study of Developing Societies.

“The report does not take account of history and social transformation. Many of the ‘full’ democracies listed in the study had colonial pasts and built their present on the back of slavery.”

India, he says is not flawed but a transforming society moving towards the deepening of democracy.

“Their snapshot method is bad sociology.”

Most experts seem to agree, questioning the basis and methodology of the study. The report itself claims that democracy as a concept is hard to define — an encouraging thought then for those who believe that India is not so flawed after all.

Experts debate India’s ‘flawed’ democracy
* Jai Mrug, political analyst and psephologist

In the report, we have performed well in the first and fifth indicators — political process and pluralism; and civil liberties.

These two categories have a common thread. They reflect how strong India is in building institutions, for instance, the election commission.

It shows there is security and accommodation in the political process. We have nurtured a great culture of free thinking. But this doesn’t involve structural changes.

In the second, third and fourth categories, on the other hand, we didn’t do so well. Although, I am skeptical about the score on government functioning since we scored the same as the US, which is definitely not correct.

But these categories reflect serious structural problems such as in political participation — we can’t stop criminals from entering politics; or political culture — we can’t stop MPs from howling in parliament.

Improving government functioning requires governance reform but we don’t have the political will to do it.

It needs to start with electoral reform such as the right to recall or reject. That is the only means of deterring the wrong people from gaining power.

Unfortunately, in India, there is a tendency to avoid any sort of structural reform, be it political, social or economic.
(As told to SK)

* Vidhu Verma, professor, centre for political studies, JNU
It’s a methodologically flawed study. The report itself says there’s no consensus on democracy.

This confusion persists in the survey. The problem is the use of normative parameters — traditional definition, competitive party system, political participation, majority of government rule.

Despite globalisation, we are seen as a flawed democracy. Can we really label states of this kind?

Being compared this way is to make assumptions that a ‘particular direction’ is not in tune with our way. Our institutions reflect our own culture.

On top of that, voter turnout — women, lower caste/class — has increased. There is increased participation in local government, especially in rural areas, and in civil society.

We are a burgeoning democracy. The label ‘flawed democracy’ is misleading. The report, however, forces us to think about how much trust we have in our political institutions. India is a political democracy not a social democracy.

People have gained power by shifting away from the traditional elite (brahminical class, bourgeois, etc) — that’s a huge achievement.

However, there is also gender injustice, low growth and enormous economic differences (poverty). We have a long way to go and it’s important to get trust back in our political institutions. (As told to Shalini Singh)

* Ujjwal Kumar Singh, professor, political science, DU
This report looks at ‘their’ criteria, ‘their’ terminology. I would question the flawed tag given to India. India is a transitionary democracy.

Historical and cultural aspects have been given a miss in the survey. To fully understand democracy, its complete history and evolution needs to be understood.

India or Pakistan (hybrid regime) are newborns compared to countries like the UK or France. It’s difficult to compare two different cultural civilisations.

The report hasn’t taken scale into account — India as the largest democracy matters. Political participation has gone up in the last 25 years.

It has been a qualitative leap for a democracy.

Take up the challenges that the Indian nation state faces, India would be ranked as a blossoming democracy.

However, civil liberties have been ranked high, and I would rank them low. In areas such as the Northeast or J&K, there are serious limitations to civil liberties.

I also disagree with the political participation figure — a country like India would be much higher. Democracy in times of crisis should also be seen — then, on political participation we go up and on civil liberties, low.

Keep in mind, women out-threw men in the Bihar elections and OBCs transformed democracy in UP. (As told to Shalini Singh)

* Subhash Kashyap, political scientist, centre for policy research
Democracy means, often legitimately, different things to different people. One kind may not necessarily be superior to others.

There is just no ‘fit all model’. There is nothing like a full democracy or a fully developed democracy.

Every democracy has to be ever-developing. The report’s classification may be too arbitrary, academically indefensible and open to question.

But, the report reaffirms what is already widely known — that erosion in people’s faith in democratic institutions is not confined to countries like India. Even the so-called advanced democracies of the West are experiencing it.

In India, problems in the electoral process (a colonial hangover) are systemic. It needs to be overhauled urgently.

The report instead of flagging this great flaw gives them a high ranking presumably because elections are widely accepted to be free and fair.

Electoral reforms are the most categorical imperative for us if any form of democracy is to survive in India.

The hard fact is that the relevance, efficacy and acceptability of western models of democracy are facing steep decline worldwide.

Political democracy needs to be wedded to economic democracy nationally and globally. But I oppose the mere empirical quantitative analysis under arbitrary norms. (As told to SK)

First Published: Apr 27, 2013 23:05 IST