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Instead of denying slide in democratic values, India must work to fix it

S Y Quraishi writes: Trying to bully or influence rating agencies to doctor data to suit us is reprehensible.

The past few years have apparently not been good to Indian democracy, hailed globally as the largest democracy in the world. It has performed poorly in every major global democracy report during this period. This is troubling news, for several reasons.

The Freedom House Index for 2021 pushed India down four points from last year, bringing its score from 71 to 67. This demoted the country from being a “free” to a “partially free” country. V-Dem, the world-renowned think-tank from Sweden, has similarly downgraded India. It has labelled India an “electoral autocracy”, an even more devastating blow to the pride of a country that boasts of a completely independent and impartial electoral management body. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has also been scathing in its report for 2021. A comparative study by the organisation has shown India’s score dropping from an all-time high of 7.92 in 2014 to 6.61 in 2020, and its ranking has taken a nosedive from 27 to 53 out of 167 countries.

All these reputed agencies point to several factors contributing to India’s declining performance. The country has seen increased pressure being put on human rights organisations and civil rights groups. Journalists and activists have been intimidated and incarcerated, and minorities have been specifically targeted. Hate and polarisation are rampant. It has even led to Amnesty International halting all activities in India. The most worrying trend has been the government’s crackdown on freedom of speech, with statistics showing a 165 per cent increase in sedition cases between 2016 and 2019.

The latest controversy surrounding India’s waning status as a democracy has been an engagement with the EIU after it released its 2021 report earlier this year. The report sparked outrage in the Indian government, which sought to challenge the rating. “The assessment of the EIU has been called false, biased, and misinformed (amongst other names) and Indian officials reached out to the EIU head office in London for clarification regarding the report,” according to a report in a national daily. “Elucidation was reportedly asked regarding the sample size used and the details of organisations and authors providing data, amongst other methodology minutiae. An offer made by the Indian government to supply ‘accurate’ data pertaining to the democratic index was firmly refused by the EIU,” the report elaborated.

The democracy index has, in fact, itself spelt out that it is a weighted average of answers to 60 questions based on five parameters: Electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties. Most answers are “expert assessments”. The report, however, does not give any details of the experts. Some answers are provided by public opinion surveys from the respective countries. It’s noteworthy that these questions are not specific to India but are common to all 167 countries surveyed. It’s puerile for us to feel that we are being singled out.

As the Indian government’s offer to supply data was rejected, a parallel global democracy index formulated by Indian think-tanks is reportedly being considered by government officials, with “accurate” reports on Indian and global democratic progress. A rejection of global democratic indexes is a pathetic move to hide the country’s downslide on most parameters.

The EIU is not alone. The Reporters without Borders’ Press Freedom Report has placed India 167th out of 183 countries. Freedom House has also given India a score of 2 out of 4 in terms of press freedom, and has stated that the Indian press is “partially free”. EIU has reportedly asserted that incidents like the shutdown of Kashmir in 2019 and the Citizenship Amendment Act have brought about this demotion. India has become so used to a sycophantic media, that it cannot tolerate any assessment which is not flattering. Sadly, no ED raids or IT “surveys” are possible against these organisations.

Kaushik Basu, formerly the chief economist of the World Bank, commenting on this episode has referred to the “burgeoning tendency of fabricating data to present an alternative image that has beset the Indian administration.” For several years now, there have been active efforts to suppress data pertaining to, inter alia, the nosediving economy, record unemployment and even Covid cases. This, according to Basu, “is detrimental to the reputation of a country which has pioneered data collection under greats like P C Mahalanobis. On the other hand, not showcasing actual data is making it difficult for policymakers to attempt to remedy the situation”.

This seeming retraction of Indian democratic values in global reports and the Indian indignation regarding it seems to be a clear case of shooting the messenger. Facts point irrevocably to the aforementioned incidents actually taking place. The Indian refusal to acknowledge and remedy them is irreparably harming its democracy.

The government instead of facing the reality and taking corrective action continues to be in a denial mode. Recently, a question asked by a member of Parliament on declining democratic indices was disallowed as it was “very sensitive in nature”. Paradoxically, the law ministry took shelter behind a rule which allows for refusing a reply under “information on trivial matters”. Trivial or sensitive? Let the law ministry make up its mind.

It appears from the media reports that the concern about the unflattering EIU data has been engaging the attention of the government for two years. The government’s move to monitor indices, and work on improving rankings goes back that long. A committee of secretaries’ meeting on January 30, 2020 discussed how India fared on various important parameters based on 32 internationally recognised indices in order to improve the performance on these indices.

The desire to introspect and analyse what needs to be done to improve is correct and laudable. But trying to bully or influence the rating agencies to doctor data to suit us is reprehensible. Let NITI Aayog and all concerned organisations focus on improving our performance in all the declining indicators. In this regard, our focus on “ease of doing business” which led to a phenomenal improvement in our ranking within a year is a success story to emulate.

This column first appeared in the print edition on September 15, 2021 under the title ‘Ease of democracy’. The writer is former Chief Election Commissioner of India and the author of An Undocumented Wonder — The Making of the Great Indian Election

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