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India’s status as a democracy downgraded to ‘partly free’

  • Category
    Polity & Governance
  • Published
    8th Mar, 2021

Context

In the latest annual report on global political rights and liberties by Freedom House, a US government-funded NGO that studies political freedom around the world, India’s status as a democracy and free society has been downgraded to ‘partly free’.

Background

  • Over the past year, oppressive and often violent authoritarian forces tipped the international order in their favor time and again, exploiting both the advantages of non-democratic systems and the weaknesses in ailing democracies.
  • In a variety of environments, flickers of hope were extinguished, contributing to a new global status quo in which acts of repression went unpunished and democracy’s advocates were increasingly isolated.
  • To reverse the global shift toward authoritarian norms, democracy advocates working for freedom in their home countries will need robust solidarity from like-minded allies abroad.
  • In 2018, 2019, and 2020, India had been rated as “free” in Freedom House’s reports, though its scores on a scale of 100 had declined during this period from 77 to 71.

Analysis

What is the ‘Freedom in the World’ Report?

  • In 1973, Freedom House launched the Freedom in the World report, which assessed the level of freedom in each country and ranked them with a numerical score, and declared them as:
    • Free
    • partly free
    • not free
  • The annual report is perceived as one of the oldest quantitative measures of democracy.
  • The Report assesses 195 independent countries across the globe.
  • The Freedom in the World 2021 is the annual country-by-country assessment of political rights and civil liberties.
  • Freedom House was formally established in New York in 1941 to promote American involvement in World War II and the fight against fascism.

Another important democracy index

  • V-Dem: Set up in 2014, V-Dem is an independent research institute based at the University of Gothenburg, and has published a data-heavy worldwide democracy report each year since 2017. 
  • EIU Democracy Index: The index provides a snapshot of the state of world democracy for 165 independent states and two territories.
    • The Democracy Index is based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation, and political culture.

Key-highlights of the Report

Freedom in the World 2021 finds that:

  • The annual gap between losses and gains widened in 2020, and fewer than a fifth of the world’s people now live in fully Free countries.
  • Authoritarian actors grew bolder during 2020 as major democracies turned inward, contributing to the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.
  • Not free countries: The share of countries designated ‘Not Free’ has reached its highest level since the deterioration of democracy began in 2006.
  • Countries with declines in political rights and civil liberties outnumbered those with gains by the largest margin recorded during the 15 years.
  • Most affected countries: The report downgraded the freedom scores of 73 countries, representing 75 percent of the global population.
    • Those affected include not just authoritarian states like China, Belarus, and Venezuela, but also troubled democracies like the United States and India.
  • Top and Bottom: Finland, Norway, and Sweden were ranked as the freest countries in the world, all with a score of 100, while Tibet and Syria were given a score of 1.
  • United States: The United States, which remained Free, fell by three points in 2020, for a total decline of 11 points on the report’s 100-point scale over the last decade.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the democratic decline. Some 42 score declines across 36 countries and territories were linked to the health crisis.
  • There are now 54 Not Free countries, accounting for 38 percent of the world’s population, the highest share since the decline began.

What claims are made for India?

  • In one of the year’s most significant developments, India’s status changed from Free to Partly Free, meaning less than 20 percent of the world’s people now live in a Free country—the smallest proportion since 1995.
  • In the latest report, India had a score of 67 out of 100.

Reasons behind the decline:

  • Indians’ political rights and civil liberties have been eroding since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014.
    • His Hindu nationalist government has presided over increased pressure on human rights organizations, rising intimidation of academics and journalists, and a spate of bigoted attacks—including lynchings—aimed at Muslims.
  • The decline deepened following Modi’s re-election in 2019, and the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 featured further abuses of fundamental rights.
  • Freedom House cited other incidents and developments that had led to the downgrade for India, including:
    • the government intensifying its crackdown on protesters opposed to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act
    • the arrest of dozens of journalists who aired criticism of the official pandemic response
    • Judicial independence has also come under strain
    • opaque financing of political parties – notably through electoral bonds that allow donors to obscure their identities

Impact at the global level

  • India’s "fall from the upper ranks of free nations" could have a damaging impact on the world’s democratic standards.
  • The changes in India formed part of a broader shift in the international balance between democracy and authoritarianism, with authoritarians generally enjoying impunity for their abuses and seizing new opportunities to consolidate power or crush dissent.

Where does China stand in the Report?

The report was extremely critical of China, describing it as the “world’s most populous dictatorship”. The malign influence of the regime in China, the world’s most populous dictatorship, ranged far beyond Hong Kong in 2020-

  • Global disinformation: Beijing ramped up its global disinformation and censorship campaign to counter the fallout from its cover-up of the initial coronavirus outbreak, which severely hampered a rapid global response in the pandemic’s early days.
  • Interrupting political discourse of foreign democracies: Its efforts also featured increased meddling in the domestic political discourse of foreign democracies, as well as transnational extensions of rights abuses common in mainland China.
  • Abusing domestic principles in multilateral institutions: The Chinese regime has gained clout in multilateral institutions such as the UN Human Rights Council, which the United States abandoned in 2018, as Beijing pushed a vision of so-called non-interference that allows abuses of democratic principles and human rights standards to go unpunished while the formation of autocratic alliances is promoted.

Examples of intervention by an autocratic neighbor:

  • In Belarus and Hong Kong, massive pro-democracy protests met with brutal crackdowns by governments that largely disregarded international criticism.
  • The Azerbaijani regime’s military offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh indirectly threatened recent democratic gains in Armenia, while the armed conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region dashed hopes for the tentative political opening in that country since 2018.
  • All four of these cases notably featured some degree of intervention by an autocratic neighbor:
    • Moscow provided a backstop for the regime in Belarus
    • Beijing propelled the repression in Hong Kong
    • Turkey’s government aided its Azerbaijani counterpart
    • Ethiopia’s leader called in support from Eritrea

What corrective measures are required?

  • Strong leadership at global level: Global leadership and solidarity from democratic states are urgently needed. 
  • Responsibilities: Governments that understand the value of democracy, have a responsibility to band together to deliver on its benefits, counter its adversaries, and support its defenders.
  • Removing negative actors: They must also put their own houses in order to shore up their credibility and fortify their institutions against politicians and other actors who are willing to trample democratic principles in the pursuit of power.

If free societies fail to take these basic steps, the world will become ever more hostile to the values they hold dear, and no country will be safe from the destructive effects of dictatorship.

Conclusion

Democracy today is beleaguered but not defeated. Its enduring popularity in a more hostile world and its perseverance after a devastating year are signals of resilience that bode well for the future of freedom.

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