Hindustan Times (Lucknow)

Assessing the quality of Indian democracy

- Rahul Verma Rahul Verma is a fellow, Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi The views expressed are personal

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 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 in 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.

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 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 antiplural­ist 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 the 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 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 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.

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