India's democracy: Slip-slidin' away

The Varieties of Democracy Report  for 2018 (V-Dem) provides the most sweeping global examination of democracy. It covers 178 countries, crunches a large number of indicators, and adds a deep historical perspective. This monumental study from the University of Gothenburg is rigorous, with a global team of 3,000 researchers ensuring deep local knowledge. It's also backed by the  European Union and funded by a multitude of different (government and non-government) institutions and think tanks, so access to data is solid. 

The methodology involves classifying nations on a combination of variables and then checking for changes in overall democratic status, or the quality of key variables. The ideal is a Liberal Democracy, where every citizen has equal rights and access to the law; there's strong freedom of expression; good institutional systems to deliver justice, freedom of association, participatory elections, etc. Only 39 nations met these standards in 2017.

The next category is an Electoral Democracy. Here citizens have the vote but certain categories of people suffer exclusion and lower standards apply when it comes to human rights, freedom of expression and association, etc.  In 2017, the V-Dem reckons 56 countries qualified for this category.

The next category is an Electoral Autocracy, where citizens have the vote but not much else. Repression, censorship and institutionalised intimidation are visible in such places. Again, there were 56 nations in this category in 2017. 

Even so, an Electoral Autocracy is better than a full-on Closed Autocracy, where the political executive is not answerable to citizens. Residents of Closed Autocracies thank their stars (or the locally approved deity) if they aren't used as punching bags on any given day. There were 27 such nations in 2017.

India is indicted as a "backslider" since the quality of democracy has noticeably declined over the past ten years and especially sharply declined since 2014. While India retains a system of free, fair multi-party elections and thus, qualifies as an Electoral Democracy, it has seen major erosion in indicators such as Freedom of Expression, Rule of Law and Freedom of Association. The survey says: "The infringements on media freedom and the civil society activities of democracy following the election of a Hindu-nationalist government have started to undermine the longest-standing and most populous democracy in the Global South. It remains to be seen if this trend will be reversed, or if India will descend further into the authoritarian regime spectrum — as during the authoritarian interlude from 1975-77.”

An important point it makes is that "Government censorship of the media and harassment of journalists can occur gradually by relatively obscure means such as inducements, intimidations, and co-optation. These tactics lead naturally to increasing levels of self-censorship and fewer explicit criticisms of the government. The predictable result is a narrower range of political perspectives in the public sphere, as well as a general decline in the freedom of expression." This sounds familiar in the immediate context of journalists being sacked for discovering that a custard apple farmer's income had not doubled.

The survey does a comparison over 2007-2017 on multiple indicators. Only one indicator — Voter's Registry has improved over the 10 years. The rest have either stagnated, or deteriorated. This includes harassment of media, curtailment of civil society organisations (Indians call these NGOs), repression of cultural and academic expression, etc. Even in terms of electoral transparency, the Survey says that intimidation and violence have increased with party agents harassing and bribing voters.  

The murder and jailing of journalists and activists and attempts to shut down alternate means of free expression have increased. The FCRA (Foreign Contributions Regulation Act) has been invoked to shut down licenses for over 20,000 CSOs to receive contributions from overseas. Most of these NGOs work in the space of human rights or on environmental concerns. India also receives a negative mark in terms of "power distribution by socio-economic position". This gels with other data on rapidly worsening Gini coefficient and more resources concentrated in the hands of the top 1 per cent.

How much of this deterioration can be reversed? Or, will there be a steeper slide towards Electoral Autocracy? Of course, we wouldn't dare talk about it, if that happens.
Twitter: @devangshudatta

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