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. The alleged deterioration in the quality of Indian democracy has only accelerated since the 2019 reelection of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The picture of India that emerges from the major international democracy rankings, if accurate, is truly alarming. If it is inaccurate, that may be more alarming still.
According to the influential Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), Indian democracy has been in decline ever since Mr. Modi first took office in 2014, with its international ranking falling from number 27 in the world (just below Belgium) to number 46 (two spots below South Africa). The EIU now labels India a “flawed democracy” characterised by “serious deterioration in the quality of democracy under leader Narendra Modi”. Sweden’s university-based Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-DEM) ranks India even lower, at 101st in the world for electoral democracy (two places above Myanmar) and 97th in the world for liberal democracy (one place above Papua New Guinea). Indeed, it claims that India is no longer a liberal democracy at all, but is now an “electoral autocracy” on a par with Russia. The American government-funded think tank Freedom House now considers India to be only “partially free”, with an overall freedom rank of tied-85th in the world. It lists the Indian union territory of Jammu and Kashmir as “unfree”.
Whether or not these evaluations are credible, they have the power to shape popular perceptions, and ultimately to influence international affairs. Governments in major democracies like the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and indeed Australia generally seek to conduct moral foreign policies, and frequently come under pressure to sanction countries that are widely perceived to be violating democratic norms. Should India come to be seen as an ‘autocracy’ that is only ‘partially free’, it might become more difficult for Western governments to cooperate with India on global and regional security. For example, the “Quad” alignment of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States is based on a ‘shared values’ narrative that includes a commitment to “the principles of freedom, rule of law, [and] democratic values”. To the extent that India comes to be perceived as not acceding to these principles, Western willingness to use the Quad as a regional mechanism may decline.
Such consequences would be well-deserved—if they are grounded in reality. If Narendra Modi and the BJP really are the barbarians at the gate of Indian democracy, assaulting the country’s liberal institutions from within and transforming the country into a Russian-style “electoral autocracy”, Western governments certainly should become more wary of cooperating with India. 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. Ordinary non-Indians, even parliamentarians and business leaders who are not specifically focused on Indian affairs, cannot realistically be expected to form their own, independent evaluations of Indian democracy. They must rely on the opinions of credible experts, and they inevitably turn to establishment organisations like the EIU, V-DEM, and Freedom House for insightful, impartial advice. Any abuse of that trust in the pursuit of partisan or particularist interests should call into question their entire model of practice.
There is no such thing as an ‘objective’ democracy ranking, and indeed concepts like democracy and freedom admit of many different meanings. The specific numerical rankings assigned to India by each of the organisations that rate it should thus be taken with something of a grain of salt. But in publishing sensational downgradings of the world’s largest democracy, these organisations are aware that their ratings will be widely reported—and subjected to intense scrutiny. Accordingly, each of the major rankings organisations publishes narrative justifications alongside their quantitative scores. In light of the fact that these narratives have been used to substantiate controversially negative rankings, it seems safe to assume that the organisations will have picked out the most damning illustrative facts to serve as documentation for their evaluations. The narrative justifications that appear alongside India’s rankings can thus be used to test the face validity of the rankings. A few shocking incidents in a country of 1.4 billion people do not necessarily add up to an assault on democracy, but a lack of any truly serious compromising evidence in a country of 1.4 billion people would suggest the negative rankings are, in fact, disingenuous.
The democracy rankings marketplace is crowded, with dozens of organisations competing for the attention of the world’s media. The EIU, 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 organisations 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 organisations; 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
The EIU is the research and consulting arm of the firm that publishes the Economist magazine. Its link to the magazine gives it the widest reach of all of the major international democracy indices. The magazine itself was historically a classically liberal publication, but in recent decades it has taken on more of a liberal internationalist identity. The Economist has taken a strong editorial stance against India’s current BJP government, running collectively-authored articles under headlines like “Narendra Modi Threatens to Turn India into a One-Party State” (November 28, 2020) and “The Organs of India’s Democracy Are Decaying” (February 12, 2022). The EIU’s rating of Indian democracy reached an all-time low in 2021, when the organisation 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 conceptualisation of Indian citizenship, a step that many critics see as undermining the secular basis of the Indian state”.
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”. The EIU correctly noted that the mosque had been “destroyed by a Hindu nationalist mob in 1992″—and it might have added that a BJP government controlled the state at that time. But although the destruction of Babri Masjid thirty years ago was clearly illegal, the BJP took no action toward building a Hindu temple (the Ram Mandir) on the site until India’s Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that the land (which had been the subject of a legal dispute since the nineteenth century) should be handed over to a Hindu trust. Although the illegal destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 was indeed a historical crime, 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.
The EIU’s 2021 report also cited “erosion of civil liberties” during the coronavirus pandemic, but this was hardly distinctive to India.
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”. 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. As for the implication that BJP electoral defeats demonstrate democracy in action, the EIU seems to be unaware that the BJP holds only 303 of the 543 seats in the lower house of India’s parliament (the Lok Sabha) and 91 of 245 seats in the upper house (the Rajya Sabha). India’s politics are highly competitive, and although the BJP is currently the country’s governing party, its proportional hold on power is in line with that of governing parties in other liberal democracies.
Finally, the 2022 EIU report notes that “the government’s failure to crack down on the persecution of religious and other minorities by Hindu nationalists continues to weigh on India’s democracy score”. This is a reasonable criticism, but one that is couched in somewhat odd language. It implies that the EIU would be favourably impressed by a government “crack down” on its own citizens. There seems to be no evidence to suggest that India’s national government systematically tolerates the persecution of religious minorities in India, although a close reading of the Indian news does suggest that some state and local governments may tolerate mob violence. No doubt the national government could do more to ensure justice for all, and it seems reasonable to demand that the national BJP put more pressure on state and local branches to ensure the equal protection of the law.
The Varieties of Democracy Institute
The V-DEM rankings are produced by the Varieties of Democracy Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. Its academic origins and support from major scientific grants bodies like the European Research Council and the US National Science Foundation give it a reputation for independence and objectivity. As a result, its rankings have been integrated into semi-official statistics produced by organisations like US AID and the World Bank. As an academic research institute, the V-Dem Institute takes no editorial stance on the countries it covers. The last time V-DEM published a specific country brief focused on India was 2016, two years after the current BJP government gained office. This brief only covered developments in Indian democracy through 2014, and mentioned neither Narendra Modi nor the BJP. 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 this report, V-DEM rated the quality of India’s democracy in 2019-2020 on a par with the level recorded in 1975-1977. This was the period called the ‘Emergency’, during which Indira Gandhi’s Indian National Congress government suspended elections, ruled by decree, officially censored the press, jailed opponents without charge, outlawed opposition organisations, banned labor strikes, and introduced a forced sterilisation program. Perhaps recognising that this comparison took the criticism of present-day India a bit too far, the 2022 V-DEM report mentioned India only in passing (although India’s the low scores remain in place). A textual analysis of the explanation of V-DEM’s India ranking must thus focus on the 2021 report, which included a two-page special section on India.
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 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. 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”. Sedition laws are a controversial topic in India, and few outsiders have any knowledge of the Indian justice system. In India, almost anyone can “charge” someone with a crime by filing a ‘first information report’. 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 of 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. That report itself cited a series of cases from 2002, 2012, and 2013—i.e., before the BJP took office.
A more serious allegation is that the government has used “the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) … to harass, intimidate, and imprison political opponents”. Of the four sources cited in support of this claim, one did not mention the UAPA. A second merely demanded that activists accused under the UAPA be released in response to the risk of contracting coronavirus in prison. A third complained that “nine prominent human rights activists … [were] accused of being members of a banned Maoist organization and of inciting violent protests”. This source noted that the activists had been previously arrested on similar charges in 2013—i.e., before the BJP took office. The fourth criticised the arrest of “several scholars accused of affiliations with Communist Party of India (Maoist) … a group banned under the UAPA in 2009″—i.e., before the BJP took office, although the arrests occurred in 2020.
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”. 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 organisations. 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. It has published an annual report on Freedom in the World since 1973, originally rating countries’ political rights and civil liberties on scales that ran from 1 (most free) to 7 (least free). For several decades, these were the only comprehensive democracy-related indicators available, and so the average of countries’ Freedom House political rights and civil liberties ratings came to be used as a rough-and-ready indicator of the quality of democracy. 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.
The total Freedom House score is based on a system that awards up to four points on each of 25 different dimensions, with the Freedom in the World report providing narrative feedback on each dimension. In 2022, India was awarded full marks (4/4) on five dimensions and strong marks (3/4) on an additional six dimensions. On each of the remaining fourteen dimensions it received a evaluation of 2 out of 4. Focusing on these laggard dimensions, the first criticism raised by Freedom House is that “Muslim candidates notably won 27 of 545 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, up from 22 previously. However, this amounted to just 5 percent of the seats in the chamber, whereas Muslims make up some 14 percent of the population”. Even if it is taken for granted that equal religious representation is a desirable goal, this should be seen as a sign of improvement, not of regression. 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”. 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 criminalisation of cow slaughter and forced religious conversion. 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. That said, there is no doubt that, in the Indian context, both of these policy initiatives are directed at Muslims, even if the laws themselves may be right and proper. Freedom House further notes that “In parts of the country, particularly in rural areas, informal community councils issue edicts concerning social customs” that may discriminate against women and minority groups. While this is undoubtedly a potential problem, it is not a problem that has arisen in recent years. If anything, increasing rural development, education, electrification, and road building are likely to be diminishing these (informal) discriminatory practices, not exacerbating them.
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”. 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”. This is difficult to quantify, and claims of declining academic freedom are a perennial feature of university life everywhere. An investigation by Times Higher Education found only scattered anecdotal evidence of declining academic freedom in India, citing only one concrete case: a dispute over whether or not civil service rules against government employee participation in political protest apply to academics. It is true that Hindu nationalist student groups have recently become more outspoken in criticising their professors, but student protest has historically been regarded as a healthy sign for democracy, irrespective of the students’ political persuasions.
With regard to freedom of assembly, Freedom House deplores the suspension of “mobile and internet service to curb protests in recent years”, which is certainly a cause for concern. In the Indian context, these information blackouts seem to have been used as an alternative to direct confrontation with protesters. In a country where deadly riots have always been a common feature of public life, it is arguably pragmatic to turn off communications in an effort to prevent violence. From the standpoint of democracy evaluation, however, it must be admitted that such suspensions do curtail both political rights and civil liberties.
Freedom House further criticises 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 realise that it is one of the world’s oldest. When India was born a democracy in 1947, fewer than a dozen countries had well-institutionalised, continuously-functioning democratic governments. In the list of countries with unbroken records of free and fair elections under the rule of law, India’s 75 years actually make it one of the oldest in the world. Even the period of the Emergency (1975-1977) did not technically break India’s record of democracy; it was declared in accordance with India’s Constitution, and elections held toward the end of the Emergency saw Gandhi swept from office in a landslide defeat.
Even fewer people realise that India is by far the world’s poorest democracy to have achieved a meaningful record of repeated elections and peaceful transitions of power. In fact, India is the only major post-colonial state to have remained a democracy throughout its period of independence. Yet India’s GDP per capita is only slightly higher than the average for sub-Saharan Africa, and at the time Modi took office in 2014 it was actually lower than sub-Saharan Africa’s. 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 answer is not obvious.
The need for a frank reassessment of Indian democracy is real. The social exclusion of Muslims—to be specific, of poor Muslims—in India is a serious problem, and one that should be addressed. Prime Minister Modi is generally careful to be inclusive in his public statements, but some BJP politicians at lower levels are culpable of using blatantly anti-Muslim rhetoric. Nonetheless, the international assumption that all Muslims are estranged from the BJP is a lazy generalisation. 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. While many anti-Modi political commentators have reacted to Modi’s Muslim outreach with skepticism, this is certainly a move that should be applauded by neutral observers.
Although India does face challenges, the stridently negative appraisals of Indian democracy published by the three major democracy rating organisations seem wildly disproportionate to the actual evidence marshalled to support them. In several instances, they smack of intentional deception. Given that all three organisations 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. It is well-established that intellectuals overwhelmingly hold liberal and socialist (as opposed to conservative) political affiliations, and that this bias is strongest among the elite humanities and social science intellectuals who are likely to populate the expert pool for democracy evaluations. India’s BJP is not only conservative in orientation, but generally perceived to be religious, nationalist, and anti-intellectual. It would come as no surprise if the pool of experts who were asked by the EIU, V-DEM, and Freedom House to evaluate Indian democracy strongly preferred other parties over the BJP.
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. It is entirely appropriate to criticise Indian democracy for its faults and to urge positive reforms, but to argue (as V-DEM does) that in 2021 India was substantially less democratic than such troubled countries as Argentina, Armenia, South Africa, and Sri Lanka is patently absurd. The lack of any compelling case against Indian democracy reflects very poorly on the three major international democracy rating organisations. 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.
Salvatore Babones is an associate professor at the University of Sydney. His 2013 bookMethods for Quantitative Macro-Comparative Research is a standard source for the statistical analysis of international comparisons. His current academic research focuses on the political sociology of authoritarianism
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