NEW DELHI: India’s rankings on global democracy indexes have been dropping ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led BJP government came into power in 2014. Over the past six years, India fell 26 places, from 27 to 53, on the Democracy Index, published by the Economist Intelligence Unit, according to a Foreign Affairs report. In March, Freedom House downgraded India from “free” to “partly free,” a status it shares with countries such as Ecuador, Mozambique, and Serbia.
The same month, Sweden’s V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) Institute went even further, announcing that India had ceased to be an electoral democracy altogether.
V-Dem now classifies India as an “electoral autocracy,” a notch above “closed autocracies,” such as China and Saudi Arabia, and two notches below “liberal democracies,” such as Japan and the United States.
India ranks seventh on a V-Dem list of ten countries that have lost the most democratic ground over the past decade. By this measure, it has regressed less than Hungary and Turkey but more than Bolivia and Thailand.
In India, where more than 600 million people — about two-thirds of those eligible —voted in the 2019 general election, many people view allegations of democratic decline as a Western attempt to diminish the country. “You use the dichotomy of democracy and autocracy,” said Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar at a media conclave in March. “You want the truthful answer? It’s hypocrisy.”
The report said such pugilistic responses play well in a land awash with nationalist sentiment. Independent India has a hoary history of blaming the “foreign hand” for anything that goes wrong, a tradition that the Modi government has expertly revived, it added.
But the foreign minister’s deflection does not answer the central question: Why has India, long regarded as an outlier in the postcolonial world for preserving democracy amid poverty, suddenly lost its sheen?
Earlier in March, Freedom House, a Washington-based pro-democracy think tank and watchdog, said in its report that India under Prime Minister Modi appears to be inching closer to authoritarianism.
“Rather than serving as a champion of democratic practice and a counterweight to authoritarian influence from countries such as China, Modi and his party are tragically driving India itself toward authoritarianism,” the democracy research institute said in its annual assessment.
Political rights and civil liberties, the authors wrote, have eroded in India since Modi became prime minister in 2014.