Two renowned reports, the Freedom House Report and the Global Democracy Index, which use a rigorous methodology, show how the international community perceives what’s happening in India.

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Voices Right to dissent Tuesday, June 22, 2021 - 14:57

“The state has blurred the line between the constitutionally guaranteed ‘right to protest’ and ‘terrorist activity. If such blurring gains traction, democracy would be in peril”. This was the observation of the Delhi High Court while granting bail to three student activists arrested for allegedly instigating the Delhi riots of February 2020. The concern of the court raises serious questions about the transformation of the Indian polity. It is gratifying that the courts have finally come forward in defence of the right to protest and the right to dissent. But the real problem that we face is deeper. There is a gradual shrinking of the democratic footprint across the country. Since India has always been a melting pot of ideas and discourse, the decline of democratic space is serious.

Except for the short interval of the Emergency, India has always upheld unwavering faith in civil liberties, debates, freedom of expression and consensus. Therefore, India’s democratic model has been respected internationally. However, our mainstream political culture is undergoing an epochal transformation now. Since 2019, the BJP government has been trying to unleash a demonic attack on democracy, attempting to decimate the concept of lawful protest and the right to dissent. The basic premise of a democracy is that there should be a credible opposition and expression of the voice of the people. By disrupting all these fundamental habits of democracy, the Modi government has created a political sub-culture of repression, fear and silence.

In this situation, it is interesting to observe how the international community perceives the dangerous turn that our republic is taking. Let’s see how democracy is placed in the two renowned international reports: the Freedom House Report and the Global Democracy Index. Although the reports were published in March, the trends reflected in these two reports are highly relevant in the present context of the Delhi High Court verdict.

According to the latest report of the globally acclaimed organisation Freedom House that ranks countries based on democracy and freedom, India has been downgraded from ‘Free’ to ‘Partially Free’ for the first time in the history of the organisation. India has always been considered ‘Free’ by Freedom House for almost 20 consecutive years, placing it among highly successful countries that respect political and civil liberties.

Similarly, India’s ranking in the Global Democracy Index also dropped from 51 to 53 in the last year. The index clearly identified the fault lines that are visible in our democratic edifice and warned that unless it is repaired, our institutions will slowly move towards perdition.

Both these reports should not be dismissed simply. On the contrary, these two reports, which use a rigorous methodology and deep analysis, are widely discussed in international policy circles and global media. Besides, these rankings play a vital role in determining the nature of international relations and foreign aid. Let’s examine the trends highlighted in both the reports.

The Freedom House report

As reflected in Table 1, when we analyse the findings of the Freedom House reports during 2013-2020, we can understand the aberrations in our democratic process since Modi came to power. While both political and civil rights received better scores until 2015, a clear shift is evident after that. Since Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, India’s image has been severely affected by the restrictions imposed on civil liberties, the repression of critical voices, and the problems caused by the mass exodus of interstate migrant workers. As we are aware, the move towards deeper authoritarianism and repressive politics began with the emergence of anti-CAA movements across the country. Although the erosion of democratic values was largely unnoticed during the pandemic, the farmers’ struggle exposed the authoritarian face of the government again. Sadly, the country witnessed the shrinking of its vibrant civil society. The Freedom House reports captured this change in its reports since 2013.

While India’s score for civil and political rights was 77 in 2013, it fell to 67 by 2020. Since the total score is less than 70, India fell into the category of partially free countries. The country received the highest decline in scores among the world’s 25 largest democracies. This is the first time that India has been described as a “partially free” country, wherein the Modi government has been accused of not only suppresses the right to dissent and struggle but also seeks to create a political culture of silence and compromise.

Table 1: A comparative study of Freedom House score for India since 2013

Year

Political Rights Score

Civil Liberties Score

Total Score

Rank

2013

34/40

43/60

77/100

Free

2014

34/40

43/60

77/100

Free

2015

35/40

43/60

78/100

Free

2016

35/40

42/60

77/100

Free

2017

35/40

42/60

77/100

Free

2018

35/40

42/60

77/100

Free

2019

35/40

40/60

75/100

Free

2020

34/40

33/60

67/100

Partially Free

Source: Freedom House Reports from 2013 to 2020

Liberal thinkers, policymakers, public intellectuals and journalists around the world have already expressed their shock and deep pain. Above all, the Freedom House report summarised India’s painful transitions as a “disappointing shift” that would ultimately lead to the weakening of “democratic culture” around the world.

The Global Democracy Index

Since 2006, the research wing of the London-based magazine The Economist has been publishing the Global Democracy Index based on the nature, scope and practice of democracy in each country. The ranking of countries is determined by narrowing down the 60 indices into five main components: pluralism, civil rights, political participation, electoral process, and the efficiency of governance. India’s global rank was 35 when the Global Democracy Index first published its report in 2006. Until 2014, India always maintained a decent score and ranking in all aspects of democracy.

The scores began to fall since 2015 with a significant decline in matters of civil rights, efficiency of governance and pluralism (Table 2). From the report it is evident that India has failed miserably in defending civil liberties since 2015. While the score for civil liberties was 9.41 in 2010, it dropped to just 5.59 in 2020. Anyone who examines the detailed reports from 2010 to 2020 will understand the horrendous deterioration and deformation that our democratic culture and institutions witnessed over the past few years.

Table 2: Global Democracy Index 2010- 2020

Year

Rank

Total Score

Pluralism

Efficiency of governance

Political Participation

Democratic political culture

Civil Rights

2010

40

7.28

9.58

8.57

4.44

4.38

9.41

2011

39

7.3

9.58

7.5

5

5

9.41

2012

38

7.52

9.58

7.5

6.1

5

9.41

2013

33

7.62

9.58

7.14

6.67

5.63

9.41

2014

27

7.99

9.58

7.14

7.22

6.25

9.41

2015

35

7.74

9.58

7.14

7.22

5.63

9.12

2016

32

7.81

9.58

7.5

7.22

5.63

9..12

2017

42

7.23

9.17

6.79

7.22

5.63

7.35

2018

41

7.23

9.17

6.79

7.22

5.63

7.35

2019

51

6.90

8.67

6.79

6.67

5.63

6.67

2020

53

6.61

8.67

7.14

6.67

5

5.59

Source: Global Democracy Reports 2010 to 2020

As seen in Table 2, India, which was ranked 40th in 2010, has slipped to 53rd position within 10 years. Both pluralism and the protection of civil liberties received the highest score in the year 2010. However, by 2020 all the pillars of democracy, including civil liberties, pluralism and efficiency of governance, began to crumble. The last three years have further witnessed a drastic transformation of these core values. The score for civil rights fell from 9.12 in 2016 to 5.59 in 2020! This is indeed the sharpest decline that a democratic country can ever imagine – not something to be taken lightly.

These reports are specifically significant when the government is still trying to use unilateral policies and strategies without considering the sentiments of the people. This was evident in the recent Lakshadweep issue as well. Hence, it is a matter of great concern that our republic is being transformed into a monolithic, majoritarian and repressive entity.

Yet, we are practising the culture of silence. Our civil society is silent except for the occasional outburst in social media. The culture of silence has become part of the great Indian folklore, although it is a painful betrayal. Philosopher Herbert Marcuse once stated that one of the main features of a dictatorship is ‘repressive tolerance’. ‘Repressive tolerance’ implies the passive acceptance of the entrenched and established ideas and policies even if their destructive effect on society is evident. ‘Repressive tolerance’ shifts the public consciousness into a state of indifference without questioning the unjust intrusions on justice, rule of law, and human rights. When patriotism, nationalism and heroism are placed above justice and liberty, the noble tradition of democracy and popular struggle falls apart. And, the public sphere silently embraces repressive tolerance.

While concluding, I cannot refrain from quoting the eternal words of Thomas Paine. In response to Edmund Burke on the question of the supremacy of human rights and the power of the monarchy, Paine stated: He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird.

These prophetic words are most relevant to contemporary India. Instead of seriously thinking about reclaiming the great legacy of pluralism, human rights and civil liberties, our opposition parties and civil society organisations are only interested in blaming each other. Their aim is short-term electoral gains rather than deeper social and political engineering. By the time they realise the real danger, the last feathers of our constitutional morality and democratic culture may fall off, killing the spirit of justice, equality, liberty and fraternity.

Sudha Menon works as a Senior Labour Research Consultant for the South Asian region at Profundo, a Netherlands-based international labour research and consultancy firm.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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