Democracy rankings will take a toll on India’s global standing and its economy

India's low democracy rankings
India's low democracy rankings are not because of Western biases, but because of the opinion of India's own intellectual class which rate India poorly.

What drew me to India’s democracy rankings is my experience in studying Indian democracy as a quantitative comparative sociologist. I see India as an extraordinarily successful democracy — I use the term extraordinarily in a statistical sense. India’s position as the world’s largest democracy is statistically irrelevant as democracy is not correlated with the size or population of a country. We have large democracies like the United States and small democracies like Luxembourg which shows that there is no relationship between a country’s size and quality of democracy. The most relevant fact is that India is by far the world’s poorest democracy.

There are some parameters to evaluate an institutionalised democracy — a minimum of three decades of free and fair elections and peaceful transfer of power between rival political parties. If we use that very simple definition for a well-institutionalised democracy, India is the only one democracy with a GDP per capita less than $10,000.

Every other well-institutionalised democracy with a GDP per capita of $10,000-20,000 is in Eastern Europe where countries became democracies in 1991. They have 30 years of democracy, but they embraced democracy to join the European Union. The question is did they indigenously develop the institutions or were these institutions imposed on them. Eastern Europeans would say these are our own institutions, but you can never be sure.

The paradox of democracy rankings

If I want to find a truly indigenous developed democracy, I have to go to $25,000-30,000 per capita range, equivalent of South Korea and Taiwan in the early 2000s. South Korea and Taiwan are now roughly 15 times as rich as India. So, there is a huge difference between India as a poor democracy and the next democracies I can find in the world. That makes India an extraordinary outlier. It not only is the poorest democracy, but also the only postcolonial nation that remained a democracy throughout its history.

Every other major post-colonial state has gone through periods of democracy and coups and dictatorship and democracies. Only India remained a democracy throughout its entire 75-year history of Independence. We could quibble over the Emergency of 1975 which is a blemish on India’s democratic history. But the emergency ended with an election unlike in other countries where an emergency ended with a military coup, or a one-party system, or worse outcomes.

As a quantitative political sociologist looking around the world, I have an indicator variable for democracies in Asia. If I use that simple test of an institutionalised democracy having three decades of free and fair elections and peaceful transfer and power, the only democracy between South Korea on one side and Israel on the other is India. Finland is an ordinarily successful democracy — a rich Scandinavian country which we expect to be one. Australia is an ordinarily successful democracy — a rich settler colonial state which we expect to be a democracy. India is a country that we do not expect to be a democracy based on other statistical attributes.

A flawed democracy?

Yet the Economist says India is a flawed democracy, worse than South Africa which is a violent corrupt one-party state. Freedom House rates India as partially free and Kashmir as absolutely unfree. The Verities of Democracy Institute calls India an electoral autocracy and places it just two notches above Myanmar which has roughly the same score. Myanmar is a country where a military Junta took over in 2021 through the coup. V-Dem considers India to be as bad an electoral democracy as Myanmar.

Frontiers Press Freedom index rates India below Hong Kong which is not a country because Reporters Without Borders (RSF) scores are not based on a fact-finding mission. It evaluates press freedom based on the views of journalists, academics, and human rights activists in a country. To be fair, journalists are not doing a direct comparison of nations on a rubric of some kind. They are simply giving their own supposedly objective evaluation of their own country. Indian journalists’ evaluation of India is compared with Hong Kong journalists’ evaluation of Hong Kong. As a result, the Press Freedom Index ranks India at 142 in the world.

It is the same story with other democracy rankings too — only that they are not quite as extreme. The Economist uses an expert panel in the true Economist magazine fashion though it doesn’t reveal much about its composition. The Economist seems to use a lot of its in-house analysis instead of doing a survey based democracy ranking. The publication is famous for its non-authored articles and its opinion is corporate opinion.

The Economist ranks India best among these organisations — 46 in the world out of 167 countries. The Economist is at least not so negative. Freedom House surveys academics, think tanks, and human rights activists. They only have 128 analysts working on the survey. They clearly don’t have people from every country in its team. They are ranking 194 countries with only 128 analysts. They also have 50 advisors who provide information to their analysts. They rate India at 77 out of 194 countries.

The Varieties of Democracy Institute is based at the Department of Political Science, University of Gothenburg, Sweden. V-Dem’s is the most respected of these democracy surveys because it is academic. It is conducted by bona fide academics and funded primarily by the European Research Council. So, their funding doesn’t come from a for-profit consulting arm like in the case of The Economist, nor it is funded by the US State Department as in the case of Freedom House.

The funding comes from academic grants from the European Union, but not from the European Union political leadership. It comes directly from the scientific research council of the European Union. Because of this, it seems to be independent and is incorporated in governance metrics produced by the US Agency for International Development, World Bank’s governance index, and Cato Institute’s human freedom index.

V-Dem puts India at 101 among 179 countries which is the worst of all rankings for the country. But V-Dem methodology is explicitly based on country analysts. They say 85% of their respondents are academics, and the rest are journalists, editors, think tanks, and human rights activists. At least two thirds of the respondents come from the country being studied. V-Dem doesn’t publish the details of the composition of its panels, but I suspect that in India’s case more than two thirds of the panel would be from India. The panels that have more in-country analysts tend to rate India the worst.

The V-Dem and RSF are primarily based on in-country analysts and they give India the worst rankings. Expert Western judgments tend to rate India better although most of this comes from Indian intellectuals sitting in Washington DC. So, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence to support my opinion that India’s low democracy rankings are not because of the biases in Western opinion. It is based on the opinion of India’s own intellectual class. It is Indian intellectuals who are rating Indian democracy poorly, not their western counterparts.

Democracy and liberalism

The situation is worse in the case of Bangladesh’s intellectuals who push the country’s ranking (138th) below Pakistan’s 119. So, India’s intellectuals aren’t necessarily the most biased in the world — their peers in Pakistan and Bangladesh have a dimmer view of their own democracies. People have the right to hold an opinion, but they don’t have the right to misrepresent facts. I found wanton speculation, misleading statistics, and uncritical reproductions of activist accusations in several responses used in the surveys.

I know it is a very strong accusation. So, let me give you some evidence. Let’s start with the Economist. In 2020, the publication ran a headline that Narendra Modi threatens to turn India into a one-party state. Of course, that was not a signed article. The first criticism is that the Citizenship Amendment Act created a path to citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. I am aware of the criticism that the combination of the CAA with the National Register of Citizens would create a situation where Indian Muslims could be disenfranchised.

I am aware of these concerns, but I will admit them when there is evidence that India’s Muslims are actually being disenfranchised. Until then, the CAA is merely a poorly drafted law. I mean that atheists and Ahmadi Muslims from Pakistan might face discrimination. A better drafted law would have said anyone facing persecution in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh on account of their religion will be offered a path to citizenship in India.

I have no complaints about international experts who say that the law as drafted might be politically calculated to appeal to anti-Muslim sentiments in India. But I haven’t seen any evidence yet of actual disenfranchisement of Muslims, or deportation of Muslims who have been in India for generations. In other words, the CAA does not reflect poorly on Indian democracy today, but its use in the future might reflect poorly on Indian democracy if it is weaponised in the way the Economist implies it might be.

The Economist’s second major objection to Narendra Modi is that he participated in the ground-breaking ceremony of a Hindu temple built at the site of a 16th century mosque in Ayodhya. My immediate response to that is why shouldn’t Modi participate in the ground-breaking session? The destruction of the Babri Masjid 30 years ago was clearly illegal, but the current government is not responsible for what happened then. The Supreme Court ruled that the mosque should be replaced with a temple and the mosque can be built elsewhere.

The Supreme Court is an independent entity. It struck down a constitutional amendment to allow the government to have some say in the selection of Judges. It is very difficult to say that the Supreme Court is pro-Modi. After the Supreme Court verdict, I don’t see any reason why he should not attend the ground-breaking ceremony. I have no problem with the disagreement on whether he should or should not have attend the ground-breaking.

In any case, these may be problems — granting refugee rights only to non-Muslims and the building of a temple. These are things people could legitimately criticise, but they don’t seem to be anti-democratic. There seems to be some confusion here between things the Economist editors don’t like and things that are emblematic of democracy. Both these decisions seem to have been popular in India. If democracy means anything, it means that people get what they want.

If the Economist wanted to publish a liberalism ranking and say that these two actions compromised liberalism, then it is fair. Unfortunately, this isn’t a liberalism ranking, but a democracy ranking. The Economist found that Indian democracy actually improved in 2022 which is good news. When the government withdrew the farm laws in response to an agitation by farmers who were worried about losing government subsidies. The Economist said that the fact that the government caved in to protests which showed that there was still life in Indian democracy. But in a democracy, we don’t influence policy by blocking roads.

The Economist sees it as something good for democracy. Freedom House, on the other hand, is a little more systematic in its critique of Indian democracy. It said that the decline in 2019 versus 2014 was because poor Muslim representation in the Lok Sabha. They point out that’s only 5% of the Lok Saba compared with 14% of the population. Agree that it is a sign of equal opportunity which is good for democracy. But the representation increased between 2014 and 2019 from 22 to 27. In other words, however low the quality of Indian democracy may have been in 2014, this should have been an indicator of improvement between 2014 and 2019.

The Economist saw laws against cow slaughter as a reason for cutting India’s democracy ranking. I understand that horse slaughter is prohibited in the US and horses are exported to Canada and Mexico for slaughter. Americans have a sentimental attachment to horses. We could argue about dogs should be killed. The Freedom House feels that it is entirely inappropriate to protect cows because a vast majority of the population finds something sacred about cows. If pure sentiment is good enough to prohibit horse slaughter, clearly the deep religious conviction of the majority of the population is arguably sufficient to prohibit the slaughter of cows.

The ban on CPI-ML (Maoist) under the UAPA actually occurred in 2010. Yet, Freedom House counts it against India’s democracy rating for 2019. It says several Supreme Court rulings in recent years went in favour of the BJP. Well, is it fair to say that a country is not democratic if the Supreme Court rules in the government’s favour. I see no evidence coming out of India that the Supreme Court of India has become pro Modi.

The V-Dem claims is that the election commission of India is no longer independent. The reason is that it didn’t penalise Narendra Modi for announcing the successful anti-missile test in 2019 during the quiet period ahead of the 2019 elections. If someone tells me that the election commission is no longer an independent institution, I expect solid evidence in support.

The democracy rankings, especially V-Dem ranking, have an impact on the economic prospects of a country because it ultimately feeds into Bond rating models. The rankings get embedded in other things. The V-Dem rankings is the one that gets embedded in most quantitative measures such as quality of governance indicators that then get embedded in the sovereign default models.

The risk of sovereign default is higher in countries that have worse governance standards. If India is misplaced on governance indicators, it gets misplaced in the bond default models. So, India will pay a higher interest rate on its sovereign debt. So, the immediate financial impact of democracy rankings is on the interest rate India pays while borrowing from international markets.

The US state department is not very enthusiastic about India. The Democratic Party in the US is the natural party of academics, NGOs, and human rights activists. That group of people feeling that India is not a fellow democracy is the reason behind the US downgrading the defence cooperation with India. Israel has faced this kind of pressure and I feel these pressures are starting to build against India.

(This article is the edited excerpt of Prof. Salvatore Babones’ speech at an online event organised by EGROW Foundation, a Noida-based think tank. Prof Babones is an American sociologist working at the University of Sydney.)