Freedom surveys: What’s ‘flawed’ is the intent and agenda behind these, says Bhavdeep Kang

The downgrading of India to an ‘electoral autocracy’ by an agency called the V-Dem Institute follows its characterisation as a ‘flawed’ democracy by The Economist Group. Both promote a gratuitously negative perception of India.

A cursory examination of the provenance of the ‘Democracy Index’ is revealing. It is an annual exercise carried out by the publishers of The Economist, which found Rahul Gandhi a 'less disturbing option' and a 'worthier recipient' of Indians’ votes than the BJP.

Gandhi naturally finds these reports credible and has warned Indians that authoritarian rulers such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi also won elections. “It wasn't like they weren't voting but there was no institutional framework to protect that vote,” he said, questioning the efficacy of the Election Commission of India and the judiciary in that regard.

Anonymous experts

The Democracy Index has been criticised for its lack of transparency and accountability, which is ironic, given that it purports to assess the status of democracy worldwide. A group of experts - whose identities are not revealed - are asked to render their opinions and the rankings are decided on that basis. To cite one analyst, the report is “riddled with biases, value judgments and hidden agendas”.

The comments are vague and unsubstantiated, to say the least. There is, apparently, 'democratic backsliding' , a 'crackdown' on civil liberties and - horror of horrors – the ruling NDA has 'introduced a religious element to the conceptualisation of Indian citizenship, a step that many critics see as undermining the secular basis of the Indian state'.

The V-Dem cites the use of sedition laws, harassment of journalists, the new IT rules and the alleged undermining of the EC to argue that India is no longer a functioning democracy. Prima facie, it would appear that no citizen of India can speak their mind or practise their religion without falling afoul of the state! Given that journalists continue to criticise the government and social media is alive with memes targeting the BJP leadership, the report certainly appears wildly over the top.

Subjective rankings

The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), in particular, has annoyed western intellectuals, who believe it translates into an undermining of democratic norms. They have not bothered to explain the rationale behind their reasoning – weighed down, perhaps, by the giant chips on their shoulders.

There are other equally subjective rankings. The World Press Freedom Index (WPFI), where India slipped a couple of notches this year, has been criticised for its “perceived biases, lack of objectivity in ranking and lack of transparency”. Then there’s the Human Freedom Index, which purports to measure civil rights and political freedoms and demoted India from 92 to 111.

The very idea that abstractions such as relative freedom can be measured, ie, assigned a numerical value, is problematic. Added to that is the opaqueness and lack of accountability of the self-appointed ranking agencies. Claims that a scientific, and therefore, infallible process determines a country’s standing are dubious, because neither qualitative nor quantitative data can present the whole picture.

On the one hand, many Indians do question the actions of the government, particularly in the foolish and at times egregious exercise of its powers. On the other, the western intellectual’s visceral distrust of and supercilious contempt for Indic culture is all too evident. The prejudice is inherent in the now ubiquitous term “Hindu nationalist government”.

Confirmation bias

In the international media, nakedly partisan and polarising opinions are given primacy over serious analysis. No attempt is made to understand just why Indians, despite their ingrained distrust of hegemonies, consistently choose the BJP over the Congress. Western journalists prefer the intellectually lazy route of confirmation bias and take their cue from Modi-haters in the Indian liberal establishment.

European nations can ban the burqa, crack down on foreign funding for Muslim religious establishments, expand the powers of regulatory agencies to curb Islamic radicals, without evoking allegations of religious intolerance. But India under the BJP is described as an ‘electoral autocracy’ and a majoritarian state.

Indian democracy threw up a right-wing, grassroots leader who lacks the benefit of a western education, so there must be something wrong with it. Indian voters must be stupid or bigoted or infantile, because they allowed themselves to be “seduced” by the “wrong” man and his “narrative of envy and hate”. Either that, or the election process itself is no longer free and fair.

Imperfect system

One cannot but find some justice in BJP leader Vijay Chauthaiwale’s contention that these views smack of “a supremacist mindset”. The prescriptive attitudes of off-shore pundits are deeply annoying to the average citizen, who takes exception at being clubbed with the handful of fanatics and anti-social elements who do in fact harass minorities, women and Dalits, just as minorities resent being identified with a small number of jihadis.

Democracy by its very nature is an imperfect system and no elected government can fulfil people’s expectations or guarantee a fair deal for every single citizen. But what’s ‘flawed’ is the intent and agenda behind the much-touted freedom surveys.

The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.

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