Representational image. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO) Exclusive
Representational image. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

Assessing the quality of Indian democracy

The world has been under the grip of a democratic recession. The rising concern among scholars and commentators on how democracies die— to borrow the title of a book on this trend — is neither surprising nor unwarranted
By Rahul Verma
UPDATED ON JUN 01, 2021 04:20 PM IST

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi completes his seventh year in office, India’s perceived democratic backsliding has invariably formed the underlying context of political assessments of his tenure. The government’s handling of Covid-19’s second wave has added to anxieties related to the suppression of democratic norms.

These concerns were validated by a host of annual democracy rankings earlier this year, which downgraded India’s status to a “flawed democracy” or “electoral autocracy”. Irrespective of one’s view on the conclusions, these reports have thrown up a set of larger questions — over methods to assess democratic robustness, the internal and external variables that shape democratic health, and the roots of the crisis of liberal democracy.

Is India’s democratic backsliding an outlier or part of a historical pattern? In the early 1990s, political scientist Samuel Huntington described the pattern of global democratisation as a series of three waves and reverse waves. The first long wave lasted for almost a century until the end of World War I; the second short wave was in the aftermath of World War II; and the third medium wave began in the late 1970s, lasting till the dawn of the new century.

Since then, the world has been under the grip of a democratic recession. The rising concern among scholars and commentators on how democracies die— to borrow the title of a book on this trend — is neither surprising nor unwarranted.

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At the outset, the sharp disagreement over democracy ratings, as witnessed in India, is inevitable, since democracy itself, in academic literature, is an “essentially contested concept”. There are endless debates among scholars on how best to measure democracy. In fact, dissatisfaction among academics with Freedom House and Polity scores led to the establishment of V-Dem that employs more comprehensive indicators and statistically robust techniques. Much like any complex social phenomenon, a snapshot picture of democracy (in terms of headline numbers) will have inherent limitations of subjectivity.

As each of these reports privileges some components of the definition of democracy and relies heavily on expert-based judgments, they capture certain parts of reality and filter some parts out.

This lack of a singular framework of measurement of democracy does not, however, mean that we must not take them seriously. Notwithstanding political rhetoric, these institutes follow a very methodologically rigorous protocol on how to define democracy, best practices to measure the concept, and aggregation of various components into single indices. Further, all these reports share a very high degree of correlation and their datasets (along with methodological details) are publicly available. Their data is regularly employed in the statistical analysis of economic, political, and social policy.

At the heart of criticism are the ideological biases of the experts. We can’t be sure about the ideological preferences of these experts as the institutes refrain from sharing the identity of individual country experts, for understandable reasons. Even as these reports document rising populism, they are subject to the same populism-driven distrust of experts. These institutes must therefore assuage these rising concerns by greater transparency.

But we must recognise that there is a certain consensus — democracy in every region of the world is under attack by populist leaders and their supporters who are exploiting nationalistic appeals to concentrate power. As a result, dissenting voices (including all sorts of minorities) are facing the heat of this anti-pluralist backlash.

The big decline in India’s ratings hinges on a decline in civil liberties and deterioration in political tolerance. And not surprisingly, the actions and inactions of the Modi government have been highlighted as the driving factor in India’s democratic backsliding.

While India must focus on the home front to regain its political legitimacy, global trends cannot be discounted in this decade of democratic recession. For example, in the previous two reversal waves, shocks to geopolitical order (such as wars), new States with weak institutions (which could not keep up with increasing pressures on the system), and neighbourhood effects were important drivers.

We must also not discount the shifting geopolitical order with the rise of China and increasing economic inequalities across the globe in understanding democratic recession. States in the developing world are unable to keep up with governance demands in face of an economic slowdown. And, most countries are facing renewed challenges with new types of non-State actors (including Big Tech) trying to influence domestic politics.

In many parts, where the rate of backsliding has been steep, especially in consolidated democracies such as India, there is also a simultaneous collapse of the ancien regimes under the weight of their inefficiencies. The liberal model of democracy is struggling as its promise of fostering equality and giving a voice to all citizens in politics has remained, to a great extent, unfulfilled. As BR Ambedkar warned, political democracy can only be sustained with the foundation of social and economic democracy.

The global surge of nationalist-populist leaders did not happen in a vacuum. Nor can their continued popularity be easily wished away. Many of these leaders have cemented a solid support base, and the political opposition in many of these countries still remains largely discredited. While these leaders remake politics in their country that is more amenable to their ideological worldview, the line between disagreements and dissent will continue to remain thin. This means that the expansive notions of democracy that were envisioned during the rapid march of global democratisation of the 1980s and 90s will continue to remain under stress in the near future.

This is not to say that the supporters of democracy must learn to live with truncated notions for the foreseeable future. It is to suggest that they must participate in a more clear-eyed appraisal of the backsliding and chart out the path of recovery. Democracy is strengthened through dialogue on divergent issues. On the home front, this would require both resolve to engage with the current churning, and more inclusive intention to re-envision the idea of India.

Rahul Verma is a fellow, Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi

The views expressed are personal

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