India Remains a Flawed Democracy Despite Being an Electoral Wonder

On World Democracy Day, a closer look reveals the various demands of global indices which India has failed to satisfy in spite of its sturdy election practices.

The President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing Wen, once said, “Democracy is not just an election, it is our daily life.” In this context, the World Democracy Day, celebrated on September 15, is an opportune moment to ponder over the state of democracy in the world.

The South Asian Region requires special attention because a quarter of the world’s population and half of the world’s democracy lives here.  

The Global State of Democracy Index, 2018

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), an inter-country organisation of 32 countries of which India is a founding member, has recently evolved the Global State of Democracy Index (GSoD). 

It scores 158 countries on five major attributes, namely, fundamental rights, checks on government, impartial administration, participatory engagement and representative government.

These are measured in terms of 16 attributes and 97 sub-indicators. Its main aim is to reflect on trends in democratisation since 1975 and present a picture of democracy involving not only the process, but substance. The latest report, expected to be released in November, classifies the countries into three categories: Democracies, Hybrid Regimes or Non Democracies based on their GSoD scores. 

The Asia Pacific Region (APR)

Cumulatively, the picture appears to be moderately positive for this region (as shown in Figure 1). There has been an increase in the conduct of elections throughout the world, with less manipulation, irregularities and fraud. In the APR, there has been a significant democratic expansion in the last four decades. The number of democracies has gone up (from seven to 15) and those of non democracies have come down (from 14 to 10) between 1975-2018.  Six countries, however, have had democratic disruptions as well.

Also read: Is India’s Democracy Really in Decline?

In the categories of representative government, fundamental rights and impartial administration, the region, as a whole, has consistently scored below the world average since 1990. The local democracy gap has widened since 1989 and electoral participation, since 2007. The gap in civil society participation has remained stagnant since 1990. Nearly 40% of the region’s democracies are mid-range in their performance in all attributes. 

A closer look at countries within the region gives us more insight into deepening autocratisation and democratic backsliding. For instance, Thailand became a non democracy from a democracy in 2013-14. In 2019, a civilian government has taken charge again. Pakistan became a hybrid regime in 2017 from being a democracy. There have been significant decline in scores across three or more sub attributes for some countries.

The most populous democracy in the world, India, declined on four sub-attributes. The Philippines and even New Zealand have declined on three each. Vietnam, already a non democracy, slid further in scores.

Figure 1

The South Asian Region (SAR)

The SAR is a sub region within the APR in the GSoD (Figure 2), and comprises eight countries of the SAARC.

Maldives and Bhutan have not been evaluated. While the region fares better than both APR and the world average in representative government, checks on government and civil society participation, it fares below both averages in fundamental rights, impartial administration, and electoral participation.

Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan have had periods of non-elected regimes. The entire South Asian region, most notably, has declined on checks on government and representative government since 2015. In fundamental rights, Afghanistan and Nepal have seen the most relative overall improvement.  Several fragile democracies such as Bangladesh (since 2014) and Pakistan (since 2018) have regressed in their scores.

Figure 2India, the cause for concern

While talking of democracy, India merits special attention (Figure 3). After all, it is home to a fifth of humanity and 70% of the SAARC population.

India has heralded the conduct of free and fair elections since Independence, and the Election Commission has won accolades from the world over for making the process more inclusive and transparent since 1951-52.

Also read: The Reputation of the Election Commission Has Been Severely Tarnished

Additionally, our judicial structure has preserved the balance of power, barring a few hiccups, which explains our good scores in the checks on government category. As a result, India has held the highest rating among South Asian democracies. 

Figure 3

It is ironical that even with all the great elections, India is consistently characterised as a flawed democracy across various democracy indices. Although there was a drastic increase in civil society participation (Chart 1) between 1978-2012,  it has declined drastically since 2015. The same is the state of civil liberties (Chart 2) in the country.

There has been a significant dip in the country’s record on personal security, freedom of association, gender equality and basic welfare. Media integrity has taken a special beating (Chart 3). 

Chart 1: Dip in civil society participation 

Chart 2: Dip in civil liberties 

Chart 3: Dip in media integrity 

Similarly, on media integrity (Chart 3), India fared better than both the global and South Asian average till 2012. But the country’s score has since plummeted.

Not a one off case

I would like to mention here that the trends above are not exclusive to the GSoD. The latest Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) World Democracy Index, published in February 2019, shows India along with South Asian neighbours slipping on democracy.

India (41) and Sri Lanka (71) were classified as flawed democracies, followed by Bangladesh (88), Bhutan (94) and Nepal (97) as hybrid regimes, and Pakistan (112) and Afghanistan (143) as authoritarian. After having reached the highest-ever position of 27 in 2014, just two points short of becoming a “full democracy”, India slipped to 42 in 2017, its worst ever.

Even though we improved one rank to 41 in 2018, its score is the same (7.23/10). The reason is that although it ranked a high 9.17 in the electoral process and pluralism category of the EIU, it hardly crossed 7.5 in any of the others. Hence, GSoD trends only serve to corroborate the EIU’s index.

Also read: Democracy as We Know It Is Inherently Flawed and Needs Fixing

The plummeting media integrity index has also been confirmed by the ‘Freedom in the World’ Report, 2019 and World Press Freedom Index, 2019 which ranked India an abysmal 140 out of 160 countries, below South Sudan! Unfortunately, the evidence of declining democracy is incontrovertible.

It is an embarrassing paradox that India is a flawed democracy despite being an electoral wonder. On this World Democracy Day, let all stakeholders pledge to engage constructively to arrest these trends. 

S.Y. Quraishi writer is former Chief Election Commissioner of India and author of An Undocumented Wonder – the Making of the Great Indian Election. In October 2017, he was appointed by International IDEA as the Global Ambassador of Democracy, alongside Kofi Annan.