Indian democracy “best fit” or flawed?


International league tables come with their own limitations. To be sure they— of which the Ease of Doing Business Index is the best known — have their uses. Countries get incentivised to trim a lot of accumulated fat by updating processes, reforming unsupportive structures and improving poor outcomes. But the one big flaw of such indices is that they ignore the context in which countries and economies function and the history they are coming from.

In short, they curate a very unequal cricket match between a well-honed team — say Norway — which is designated as the ideal, versus others. The movie Lagaan captured a romanticised version of one such epic match between untrained Indian villagers and the British district officer’s team, which ends improbably with the former defeating the latter.

No such luck however in real life. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2018 — a political league table, consisting of 165 countries — is unbelievably picky about what constitutes a democracy.

Just ennui or pique?

For starters, it is weird that South Asia — with a population of nearly two  billion people (26 per cent of the global population) — does not qualify as one of the seven separate sub-sets. It is clubbed into a catch-all classification of Asia and Australasia — which comprises around 60 per cent of the global population. Meanwhile, the residual 40 per
cent of the world’s population is studied in as many as six subsets. Is this just ennui or a depressingly shortsighted “old world” focus?

Democracy of pipe dream?

Consider also that merely 20 countries with a share of 4.5 per cent of the global population qualify as “full democracies”. Of these, 14 are in Western Europe; two each in Latin America (Uruguay and Costa Rica) and in Asia/Australasia (Australia and New Zealand); Canada in North America and Mauritius in sub-Saharan Africa.

A total of 55 countries (one-third of the 165 countries) with a share of 43 per cent of the global population are categorised as “flawed democracies”. This is the “aspirational” lot which includes India, the United States, South Africa, France, Greece, Italy, Japan, South Korea, most of Southeast Asia, Argentina, Peru, Brazil and Mexico.

Countries beyond the “democratic pale” like Russia, China, North Korea and 36 others (nearly one-third of all countries) with a 36 per cent share of the global population, are classified as “authoritarian”.

A similar number of countries with a share in the global population of 17 per cent are classified as “hybrid” — examples being Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan and Bhutan. This set is possibly in transition to the “flawed democracy” status, whilst the “authoritarian” set is possibly irredeemable.

One wonders what purpose such classifications serve beyond reinforcing the 1970s-style impossible objectives of aid programmes to make all developing countries into pale and often dysfunctional replicas of Denmark.

The EIU index fails the triangulation test

Democracy is like God. There are many local variations, and these could be the best fit (as opposed to best practice) options for achieving the fundamental, desirable outcomes — voice, participation, accountability and civil freedoms.  Cross-country assessments against a strict global template are notoriously flawed. Consider that South Korea, at rank 21, and Japan, at rank 22, are placed higher than the United States, at rank 25. This must really rankle in Washington. It also does not triangulate with the relative ground realities.

Ellis island

India has a rank of 41 out of 165 countries. Its score (out of a maximum of 10) was 7.68 in 2006. This improved to 7.80 in 2008. Thereafter it declined before picking up to 7.69 in 2013 and was at an all-time high of 7.92 in 2014. The slew of “rights” legislation in the waning years of the UPA-2 government plus the peaceful conduct of the 2014 general election and the subsequent smooth transfer of power were possibly celebrated in this improved score. The score in 2017 and 2018 fell to a never-before low of 7.23, possibly on account of unchecked hate crimes, informal constraints on the media and legislative initiatives which are perceived to be born out of an anti-minority sentiment.

Template not sensitive to local variations

But consider that during that same period there have been contrary signals which speak to the resilience of Indian democracy and the positive outcomes generated by electoral politics.

First, the Narendra Modi government brought in affirmative action for the poor in government jobs and education for those castes and religions which were left out of the existing schemes. The new 10 per cent quota will benefit the upper-caste poor and poor Muslims. All the other lower castes already enjoy this benefit via a 50 per cent reservation. How does one weigh this progressive “never before” initiative against the regressive Hindutva preoccupation of the government for greater institutionalisation of Hindu religion and culture?

Second, democracy is also about using state resources for universal social support and protection. The Modi government has initiated a cash transfer scheme for 100 million poor farming families — defined as possessing less than two hectares of land — an election sop, possibly, to dull the pain of farm distress resulting from a bumper crop and falling farm gate producer prices. But it shall be uniformly made available to all citizens who are eligible, irrespective of caste, religion or region.

Democratic accountability also means being uniformly responsive to distress and being fair in positive affirmation initiatives. On both these counts, the Modi government has scored. The significance of these steps can only be understood in the post-Independence, historical context of complete disregard for the welfare of the poor among the upper castes and Muslims, the latter simply being left to the care of madrasas (religious schools) tightly controlled by the Islamic clergy.

EIU Index blind to history and context

The United States and India are the two democracies which function at an unprecedented scale in the history of democratic governance. They also grapple with enormous economic and cultural diversity and embedded constitutional arrangements, which distribute political powers to sub-national and local governments. The EIU’s democracy framework, by being blind to history and to context, is not doing itself any favours.

Adapted from the authors opinion piece in The Asian Age, February 2, 2019

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