Pulling India’s democracy back from the brink

Suggestions that its democratic credentials have been tarnished merit a serious, thoughtful and respectful response

Institutional checks

Happily, human progress has made this description of state-society relations sound quite anachronistic, even though fundamental alterations in the balance of power between governors and the governed are the happenings of contemporary history. The first institutional check on sovereign power is arguably the establishment of the English Parliament in what British historians term the Glorious Revolution. Tired of unending wars that it was asked to fund through people and treasure, an emboldened nobility asserted its right to be consulted by the monarch in matters of war and the purse. But for the non-Lords of the British Isles, precious little changed. That was the late 1600s, and while the French and American Revolutions of a century later spawned political theory of the highest order proclaiming the inalienable freedoms of all men created equal, the truth is that the era of colonialism, and continued exclusion of women, as well as racial and religious minorities, meant that it was not until the mid-1950s that the revolution only dreamt about for millennia before became reality.

Finally, leaders were expected to return periodically to face the judgement of the governed through universal suffrage elections, and their power in office was constrained by a constitution whose guardian was an independent judiciary, and whose actions were scrutinised and made public by an empowered press charged with a sacred responsibility to speak truth to power on behalf of the powerless.

In the heady days that followed the Second World War, with colonial rule beating the retreat, the spirit of national self-determination heralded the proliferation of newly independent countries around the world. The ideological battleground of the Cold War forced these new states to choose between democracy, the sine qua non of which was competitive elections, and its many alternatives, the latter often justified by the fig leaf of communist ideology. But a mere few decades later, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the start of a unipolar American era led many erstwhile dictatorships to announce elections. As one commentator infamously stated, it was the end of history and liberal democracy had won the day.

Pillars of governance

What the democratic triumphalists failed to anticipate was that elections, while vital to the exercise of democracy, are just one leg of the governance stool. The others, equally necessary for the system to hold steady, are the strength and independence of the other public institutions of the state whose fealty was to the Constitution rather than any elected government; and the vibrancy and vitality of the press who served as the people’s representatives, asking questions and uncovering truths that made the powerful squirm, and that levelled the playing field for citizens charged with rendering judgement on incumbents at the next election. But the electoral autocrat, as academic observers labelled them, understood this architecture all too well, and initiated a sustained, often violent, assault on these very institutions, even arguing brazenly that the counter-majoritarian impulses of constitutionalism were in fact anti-democratic! It is a playbook honed and refined by Vladimir Putin (Russia), Viktor Orbán (Hungary), Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Turkey) — and incompetently (thankfully) attempted by Donald Trump (the U.S.).

Their methodologies and indicators are transparently public, and the data sets they provide are widely analysed by researchers worldwide. Like most academic work, their efforts are destined to be ignored by most, but the announcement last month that both indices had independently decided to downgrade India’s democratic rating has set off a firestorm of indignant protest by many who view it as a frontal assault on the current government. India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar dismissed these ratings as irrelevant certificates issued by self-appointed arbiters in the West for which India had little use. Fair enough, though a cynic might point out that the government is all too glad to trumpet positive recognition by western organisations that laud India’s improving investment environment, for instance. Some certificates are more useful than others.

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What drove the decision to reduce India’s score on these indices? Both Freedom House and V-Dem utilise explicitly multi-dimensional schema that combine many different indicators using, in V-Dem’s case particularly, quite sophisticated statistical techniques. Their methods have been repeatedly peer-reviewed and validated by thousands of studies that establish a very high degree of correlation with other academic efforts to measure democracy. Their key facet is a conception of democracy that is holistic, and that gives considerable weight to the freedom of the press and the independence of the judicial branch. Concerns about the undermining of these institutional checks-and-balances on the power of the Indian state led both institutions to reduce India’s score on their index. (Freedom House also reduced its score for a Trump-battered United States, for those wondering.) Nor are such concerns limited to India as a web search for the phrase ‘democratic backsliding’ will reveal. Democracy has been in retreat globally for a while.

Is India less “free” than it was a decade ago? Maybe; maybe not, but it is disingenuous to pretend that the mere perception that it might be so does not have negative consequences for the country’s ambitions to be a fully paid-up member of the Quad, or of the D-10 (a moniker for a group of 10 leading democracies), both of which western clubs require a certificate attesting an applicant’s democratic credentials for admission. One need not agree with the scoring to recognise its import. To do otherwise is to crib about whether the setting or grading of an examination was fair as if this could alter an adverse university admission decision it caused — at a certain point, it is besides the point.

Shun the preferred gallery

How can India reverse the damage caused? First, the government must resist peevish responses. An international audience increasingly savvy to misinformation sees through the copy-paste Twitter campaigns of pliant celebrities and pro-government bots. India’s democratic credentials are intrinsic to its identity and its greatest source of legitimacy internationally. The suggestion that these credentials have been tarnished merits a serious, thoughtful, and respectful response, rather than a clever quip that plays to one’s preferred gallery but does nothing to assuage one’s critics. Second, the courts and press must own up to their part in this debacle. Institutional independence is a hard-won resource to be husbanded and invested wisely by their custodians. Doing so strengthens them and the government with whom they serve the people. Third, strong democracy requires a strong Opposition, as much as it does an incumbent secure enough to face criticism without getting defensive. Without an Opposition to provide voters a viable alternative, the most powerful check on power devised by human society — elections — loses its power, and with it, so does democracy.

Also read Indian democracy: A thing of beauty

For almost 75 years, India’s democratic exceptionalism in the developing world has been a source of genuine pride for its citizens, and made it a beacon for others seeking to learn from its enviable record of holding free and fair elections at all levels of society. But concerns caused by increasing attacks on the press and the erosion of judicial autonomy undermine that image. It is that reality, not the publishing of an academic index, to which the government and the nation must respond.

Irfan Nooruddin is the author of Elections in Hard Times: Building Stronger Democracies in the Twenty-First Century

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