Democracy Crumbling: How Did India End Up Among Top 3 ‘Backsliders’?

As per a report, Brazil, India and the United States are the biggest backsliders globally.

4 min read
Democracy Crumbling: How Did India End Up Among Top 3 ‘Backsliders’?

Institutions with a proven and long record of assessing the health of democracies, V-Dem and Freedom House, earlier have drawn India’s democratic backslide into sharp focus. Freedom House has classified India as only ‘partly free’, and V-Dem has called it an ‘Electoral Autocracy’ not using either democracy or freedom in the descriptor. But that is not all.

A report last week by Sweden’s International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, or International IDEA, has shone a light on more specific issues that have worrisome implications. The institute is an inter-governmental think tank that has India as one of its founding members. It finds overall that “70 per cent of the global population now live either in non-democratic regimes or in democratically backsliding countries”. The report cites Brazil, India and the United States as the biggest backsliders globally.

India is only second to Cambodia in the region as the country with the maximum erosion of democracy in the past five years.

What makes this report worth one’s attention is that it compares countries according to their own experiences, too, not wishing to only rank them versus each other. It has points made about India that should serve as a wake-up call to all those interested in India’s democracy.

India Falls on All Scores

In the Global State of Democracy Index (or the GSoD) that this institute calculates, India has seen a significant fall across nearly all indicators this Index has scores for. The report uses 116 indicators, broadly divided across five metrics of representative government, fundamental rights, checks on government, impartial administration and participatory engagement. The period for evaluation globally starts in 1975. India is still classified as a “mid-performing democracy” overall, but between 2015 and 2020, the democratic backslide is discernible and steep.

On the metric of representative government, in 1975. India’s score was .59. It saw a steady growth but only till 2015 when it was .72. It started falling since, and in 2020, it stood at .61, almost equal to what it had fallen to in 1975 when there was a formal Emergency in place.

India’s score on fundamental rights in 2010 was low at .58. But by 2020, it fell further to .54. In the decade between 2010 and 2020, India’s score on civil liberties tanked from .65 to .53.

India has also registered its all-time lowest scores on freedom of religion since 1975. The report is candid over rising “ethnonationalist mobilisation”, which it calls out as detrimental to democracy.

It records “the infusion of religion in politics in a number of countries, including India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka”. It says, “Such tendencies contribute to the weakening of democracy by undermining pluralism, increasing societal polarization and, in the worst cases, heightening conflict.”

Regular elections are often cited to waive off or evade discussions on democratic backsliding. The score on “Clean Elections” in India has seen a decline over the last five years, with the score being .85 in 2015 but falling to .65 in 2020.

India's System of Checks and Balances is Failing

The report identifies the strength of a democratic society as being dependent on how the complex system of checks and balances amongst institutions works, and, especially, how robust the checks on the executive are.

In India, in the past five years, the ability of institutions to play this critical role has declined – between 2010 and 2020, it fell from .71 to .58. In just five years between 2015 and 2020, the fall has been from .62 to .58.

India has “suffered decreases in all of the sub-attributes” of the metric of checks on government, namely Effective Parliament, Judicial Independence and Media Integrity.

The effectiveness of parliament fell by 9.6%, media integrity fell by 7.9% and judicial independence fell by 2.5%.

How did COVID-19 Contribute to the Fall?

The report records the impact of the pandemic on democracies, and India is the worst “decliner”. It writes that “the pandemic has served as a magnifier of pre-existing democratic strengths and weaknesses within governing systems around Asia and the Pacific”. Others in the region who fared poorly were Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

It says during the pandemic, “beyond lockdowns, curfews and other precautionary public health safeguarding measures, concerning attacks on civil liberties were noted around the region, including large numbers of citizens arrested, the use of excessive police force, and/or issuing of criminal charges simply for publicly voicing criticism of the official handling of the crisis”. It marks out India: “human rights violations resulted in deaths, chiefly as a consequence of heavy-handed enforcement of lockdowns and curfews.”


Move Past Denials and 'Monitoring'

A charge of unsympathetic and ‘biased’ foreign indicators is often levelled at global institutes and such indicators. So, for a fuller picture of how India’s democracy is faring, recent books by renowned academics and researchers provide rigorous evidence of our democratic journey. Modi’s India by Christophe Jaffrelot, rated as amongst the “best books of 2021” by The Financial Times, and Aakar Patel’s Price of The Modi Years, which is a best-seller on Amazon, provide documentation about the road India is on currently.

A recently released book by Debashish Chowdhury and John Keane details why India’s democracy is threatened. Interestingly, what its publishers did to the book – choosing to pulp and not publish in India citing vague reasons despite there being an international edition in circulation – also vindicate the title of the book, To Kill a Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism.

On July 10, Niti Aayog organized a virtual workshop “with 47 Central Ministries/Departments, chaired by Shri Rajiv Gauba, Cabinet Secretary, in furtherance of the Government of India’s decision to monitor the performance of 29 select Global Indices.”

But instead of denials and ‘monitoring’ – because these ratings are seen as hurting India’s reputation – Indians would benefit much more if the reality leading to these readings would induce introspection from the government.

(Seema Chishti is a writer and journalist based in Delhi. Over her decades-long career, she’s been associated with organisations like BBC and The Indian Express. She tweets @seemay. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Speaking truth to power requires allies like you.
Become a Quint Insider

or more


3 months
12 months
12 months
Check Insider Benefits
Stay Updated

Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.

Join over 120,000 subscribers!