Indian democracy gets a bum rap.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a bum rap as an American slang term for “an unfair claim that someone has committed a crime or done something wrong,” that about covers it.
Despite a vibrant free press, a tenaciously independent judiciary, and 75 years of free and fair elections (including during the 1975-1977 Emergency, when the all-powerful Indira Gandhi called and lost the most important election in Indian history), India has somehow gained an international reputation as an authoritarian state bordering on fascism.
The Economist Intelligence Unit considers India a “flawed democracy”; Sweden’s Varieties of Democracy Institute calls India an “electoral autocracy”, and the Washington think tank Freedom House rates India as only “partially free”.
Academic commentators often use even harsher language.
Thomas Blom Hansen, the Reliance Industries—Dhirubhai Ambani Professor of South Asian Studies at Stanford University, has said that “the Modi government is a regime of low-intensity terror”. Yale University professor Jason Stanley, the author of How Fascism Works, says that “India demonstrates just how global ethno-nationalism, and its more violent sibling, fascism, have become”.
And here in Australia, Craig Jeffrey, the former CEO of Melbourne University’s Australia-India Institute, has written that “Narendra Modi’s regime may be described as an instance of authoritarian populism”.
How can a country that has been so successful at developing democracy at home have such a bad reputation abroad?
It is often said that India is the world’s largest democracy. It is less well understood that India is by far the world’s poorest country to possess a well-institutionalised democratic system and to have maintained its democratic institutions throughout its entire history as an independent country.
Many of the criticisms levelled at Indian democracy are actually criticisms of poverty, and Indian democracy should be admired for its persistence in the face of deprivation, not discounted for the shortcomings of the Indian economy.
Other criticisms of Indian democracy are actually criticisms of outdated (often British colonial) institutions, and again Indian democracy should be admired for its longevity, not discounted for its age.
However, the most egregiously misplaced criticisms of Indian democracy are actually no more than criticisms of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), often criticisms that are levelled at it by its domestic political opponents. These are then amplified and broadcast by academics, international organisations, and overseas Indian intellectuals.
In research published this month by Quadrant magazine (“Indian Democracy at 75: Who Are the Barbarians at the Gate?”), I have shown how the three major international evaluations of Indian democracy are “suffused with wanton speculation, misleading statistics, and uncritical reproductions of activist accusations” against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP.
In several specific incidences, the data presented by international critics as evidence of the declining quality of Indian democracy shows signs of intentional deception.
One obvious example of data misrepresentation is the claim that in 2021, more journalists were killed in India than in any other country outside China. Even taking the underlying data at face value, they show that India’s rate of deadly violence against journalists was 3.5 per billion people. The rate for the rest of the world outside China was 6.3 per billion people.
A fair appraisal would conclude that journalists are actually safer in India than in the rest of the world. But by failing to adjust for India’s extraordinarily large population (and accordingly a large number of journalists), the data are made to tell a different story.
Another misrepresentation is the claim that the BJP uses sedition laws to silence critics.
When carefully examined, the data adduced in support of this claim actually show no trend in the filing of sedition accusations. Moreover, those who make the claim routinely fail to note that in the Indian justice system, virtually anyone can file a First Indication (information) Report for sedition (or any other crime).
Thus of the thousands of sedition accusations filed during the period of the BJP government, very few have actually resulted in prosecution (there are no data on prosecutions under the previous Congress-led government).
One of the strangest findings of democratic decline concerns is the lack of Muslims winning seats in the Lok Sabha (Indian Parliament’s lower house). The number of Muslim Members of Parliament (MP) is in fact relatively low, compared to the concentration of Muslims in India’s overall population. But the number of Muslim MP’s has been rising since the BJP came to power, not falling.
If the number of Muslim MP’s is to be taken as an indicator of the quality of Indian democracy (a suggestion that is itself open to question), then the quality of Indian democracy has improved over the last eight years, not declined.
It is no secret that most Indian intellectuals vehemently oppose Narendra Modi and the BJP.
Understandably, International organisations would turn to Indian intellectuals—academics, journalists, think tank analysts, and award-winning writers—for insights into Indian democracy.
‘Prestigious organisations’ like the Economist Intelligence Unit, the Varieties of Democracy Institute, and Freedom House have a responsibility to be critical in their use of evidence and sceptical of highly politicised views. However, these organisations have themselves become politicised and are losing the credibility that made them prestigious in the first place by justifying these views.
Whatever individual Indians may think of Narendra Modi and the government he leads, all of the objective indicators show Indian democracy to be in good health. In fact, India’s democracy is in much better health than that of peer countries with similar levels of education and income.
At 75 years old, it might reasonably be said that Indian democracy is healthier than ever.
Almost uniquely, India seems to have solved the problem of how to run a liberal democracy in a relatively poor country.
The world should be looking to India as a model, not of democratic backsliding, but of democratic success.
(In an exclusive interview with The Australia Today’s Editor, Pallavi Jain, Salvatore Babones said that internationally India enjoys tremendous goodwill at the official and geo-political level but that it was Indian intellectuals who were poisoning India’s reputation.)
Author: Salvatore Babones is an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney and the author of “Indian Democracy at 75: Who Are the Barbarians at the Gate?”, a research paper on India’s democracy rankings that appears in the September issue of Quadrant magazine.
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