Voice

India’s “Electoral Autocracy” Hits Back

Angry about India’s Freedom House and V-Dem ratings, Modi is creating his own democracy rankings.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi leaves from No. 10 Downing St. in central London on April 18, 2018.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi leaves No. 10 Downing St. in central London on April 18, 2018. Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

In the last few weeks, India’s already beleaguered reputation has taken two more hits. Two major global organizations that assess the state of freedom and democracy around the world, Freedom House, based in Washington, and Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), based at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, released their annual assessments. In both reports, India’s standing tumbled.

Until last year, Freedom House had listed India as “free.” In the latest report, it downgraded the country to “partly free.” The V-Dem report went even further; it listed India as an “electoral autocracy,” below its evaluation of last year that had characterized the country’s status as “highly uncertain.” The V-Dem rating was particularly difficult for India, since it placed the country on par with rival Pakistan and behind Bangladesh.

Reactions across India have been swift. The government and its spokespersons dismissed the criticism outright. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs quickly stated that the country did not need “sermons, especially from those who cannot get their basics right.” Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, the external affairs minister, took to TV to call the ratings hypocritical “because you have a set of self-appointed custodians of the world who find it very difficult to stomach that somebody in India is not looking for their approval, is not willing to play the game they want to be played.”

In the last few weeks, India’s already beleaguered reputation has taken two more hits. Two major global organizations that assess the state of freedom and democracy around the world, Freedom House, based in Washington, and Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), based at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, released their annual assessments. In both reports, India’s standing tumbled.

Until last year, Freedom House had listed India as “free.” In the latest report, it downgraded the country to “partly free.” The V-Dem report went even further; it listed India as an “electoral autocracy,” below its evaluation of last year that had characterized the country’s status as “highly uncertain.” The V-Dem rating was particularly difficult for India, since it placed the country on par with rival Pakistan and behind Bangladesh.

Reactions across India have been swift. The government and its spokespersons dismissed the criticism outright. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs quickly stated that the country did not need “sermons, especially from those who cannot get their basics right.” Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, the external affairs minister, took to TV to call the ratings hypocritical “because you have a set of self-appointed custodians of the world who find it very difficult to stomach that somebody in India is not looking for their approval, is not willing to play the game they want to be played.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government have been here before; since his election, he has faced criticism of his human rights and democracy record. In the past, his team has simply condemned and harassed those who would criticize it. In September 2020, New Delhi pushed the highly regarded human rights nongovernmental organization, Amnesty International, into shuttering its operations in India. Amnesty International had attracted Modi’s ire because of its critical stance toward the government’s harsh crackdown in the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir. It had also questioned the violent behavior of the New Delhi police during riots in the nation’s capital in February 2020.

And it wasn’t just Amnesty International that attracted the government’s anger. New Delhi also responded sharply to the decision of the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, to appeal to the Indian Supreme Court to question the appropriateness of Modi’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act. The act, which was passed in December 2019, grants preferential treatment to Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Sikh, and Zoroastrian migrants—excluding Muslims—should they wish to obtain Indian citizenship. The government, quite predictably, argued the issue was entirely an internal matter and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees lacked any legal standing on the subject.

The government’s vigorous reaction to the two latest ratings was hardly surprising. What was new, however, was that even before the reports were released, New Delhi had already been considering a strategy to fend off possible criticisms of its record. To that end, efforts were under way as of last November to orchestrate an indigenous effort to rate the state of freedom and democracy around the world. The idea was for India to create two indices: one to assess the state of democracy in the world and the other to access global press freedom. According to the Ministry of External Affairs, these tasks would be assigned to an independent Indian think tank. It remains to be seen whether the government will actually follow through, but it appears the New Delhi is already asking its diplomatic missions to provide information to key nongovernmental organizations that deal with global human rights issues.

As the government has set about creating its own alternative facts, the response from Indian academics and members of the country’s civil society have been more varied, as exemplified by two prominent writers, the Indian political scientist Suhas Palshikar and the pollster-turned-politician and social activist Yogendra Yadav.

Palshikar, writing in The Indian Express, conceded it was possible to criticize the methods the two organizations used but that “rejecting [the reports] as hypocrisy is not merely churlish, it characterises the avoidance syndrome.” More to the point, he called out Indian ideologues for promoting a form of nativism in their arguments that democracy is a Western import and India should look instead to indigenous political and cultural traditions to find mechanisms for governance.

Yadav, took a somewhat more critical view of the two assessments in The Print. With a couple of deft rhetorical pot shots, he reminded his readers that the United States has, on many an occasion, supported dictatorial regimes around the world. The sally ignored the obvious: Neither organization that issued these reports has any affiliation with the U.S. government. That said, he did criticize New Delhi’s own response, especially its appeals to the fact that India still holds elections. “The whole point of calling India an ‘electoral autocracy’ is this: elections happen more or less fairly, but the country is non-democratic in between two elections,” he wrote. Yadav went on to highlight how the press has been browbeaten, judicial independence steadily eroded, political dissenters hounded, and minorities marginalized.

Whatever internal and external criticism New Delhi faces though, there is little reason to believe it will change its ways. As its spokespeople and efforts to create its own rankings demonstrate, Modi is more inclined to corral the wagons against what he sees as an orchestrated assault. However, that strategy will do little or nothing to change a simple reality: Global scrutiny and criticism of India’s faltering democratic standing is unlikely to relent unless India’s practices improve. The latest rankings are only two salvoes in a long war if India’s democracy continues its downward slide.

Sumit Ganguly is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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