Busting the flawed V-Dem index that ranks India 100th on ‘democracy’

"In V-Dem's estimation, India's electoral system in 2019, 2020, and 2021 was substantially less "free and fair" than at the height of the Emergency in 1976."

According to a report released by the think tank India Century Rountable, the V-Dem Electoral Democracy Index published by Sweden’s Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute, suffers from serious flaws.

This is the same Index that in its 2022 report (based on 2021 data), ranked India 100th in the world for Electoral Democracy.

The report titled ICR 2023 Indian Democracy Report: Inside the V-Dem Rankings is authored by Dr Salvatore Babones, who is the Director of the Indian Century Roundtable and also an associate professor at the University of Sydney.

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Prof Salvatore Babones, University of Sydney; Image Source: The Australia Today
Prof Salvatore Babones, University of Sydney; Image Source: The Australia Today

The V-Dem index is calculated on the basis of five sub-indices. Two of these are ‘objectively’ scored based on an analysis of constitutions – ‘Elected Officials’ and ‘Universal Suffrage’.

The report released by ICR shows that 131 countries were given perfect scores for ‘Elected Officials’ including Belarus, Cuba, Libya, Palestine (West Bank), Syria, Russia and Vietnam on the V-Dem Index. Among the 174 countries that were given perfect scores for ‘Universal Suffrage’ were all of the above, plus China, Hong Kong, Iran, North Korea, Palestine (Gaza), Myanmar and Venezuela.

Most countries on this Index received identical perfect scores for the two ‘objective’ components mentioned above. The ICR report mentions that nearly all of the differentiation among countries in their rankings was derived from the three subjective components—i.e., from ‘expert’ evaluations. They are Clean Elections, Freedom of Association, Freedom of Expression.

Image: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in front of Parliament House (Source: Twitter)

The ICR report further states,

“India was ranked 91st in the world for “Clean Elections” in 2021, down from 59th in 2014. V-Dem rates the 2019 elections in India as less “free and fair” than the 2021 Legislative Council elections in Hong Kong and only marginally better than the 2021 National Assembly elections in Vietnam”.

“In V-Dem’s estimation, India’s electoral system in 2019, 2020, and 2021 was substantially less “free and fair” than at the height of the Emergency in 1976, when elections were suspended and more than 100,000 of the government’s political opponents were imprisoned without trial”.

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“India was ranked 114th in the world for “Freedom of Association” in 2021, down from 92nd in 2014. The repression of civil society in India today was characterized as falling between “Mugabe’s Zimbabwe” and “Franco’s Spain.”

“India was ranked 119th in the world for “Freedom of Expression” in 2021, down from 61st in 2014. Government censorship of the press was characterized as being roughly on a par with that in Iran”.

One of the key take-away of the ICR report is that “V-Dem’s electoral indicators fail to differentiate between genuine and “sham” democracies, with the result that one-party dictatorships can and often do score higher than real democracies for the quality of their elections”.

In its conclusion, the ICR report also states that the errors identified in their paper are deeply baked into V-Dem’s back-end data collection processes, and cannot be corrected by a front-end statistical patch.

“It may seem unreasonable to demand a root-and-branch reformulation of the V-Dem democracy rankings simply because they return low scores for today’s India. But India is not the issue here; India is only the canary in the coal mine. The problems identified in this paper are problems with V-Dem, not problems with V-Dem’s India scores. Until they are fixed, the V-Dem rankings should not be taken seriously as indicators of the health of the world’s democracies”.