Home / Opinion / Columns /  Measuring the health of a democracy is a big challenge

As political temperatures soar ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the health of Indian democracy is likely to be in focus. One common strand in the statements issued by several opposition leaders is a threat to it posed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led regime. “Vote BJP out, restore India’s democratic health" is likely to be part of their electoral pitch.

This concern about erosion of democratic norms is not restricted to India. To many observers, democratic norms appear to be under siege globally, even as elections become increasingly polarized.

At first glance, the available data seems to back such a narrative. A number of global indices of democratic health have been flashing red, suggesting that democratic values are in danger. The most prominent and widely cited of these, the V-Dem indices, show that the share of autocracies has been rising sharply over the past decade.

V-Dem indices are prepared by researchers at the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. Its list of autocracies includes ‘electoral autocracies’ such as India and Hungary, where rulers are elected through a popular vote but other democratic norms (such as freedom of expression) are not fully honoured.

A closer look at these indices, however, suggests that the conclusion of a global democratic retreat may be unwarranted. Analysing data for over a century, American political scientist Daniel Treisman has argued that the recent stasis in the global spread of democracy is neither unprecedented nor alarming. “The proportion of countries in the world that are democracies by any measure is either slightly below or at an all-time high," wrote Treisman in a 2022 research paper. “While some backsliding has occurred—especially in the legal underpinnings of liberal democracy—it is far from reversing the massive burst of democratization that occurred in the last quarter of the twentieth century."

Another research paper by Andrew Little and Anne Meng of the University of California, Berkeley, published this year shows that evidence on democratic backsliding is based entirely on subjective indicators. If one were to focus on objective measures of electoral processes and outcomes, there is no evidence of backsliding, Little and Meng argue.

Most indices of democratic health, including the V-Dem indices, combine easily observable and verifiable data (such as the share of population with voting rights, voter turnout and allegations of fraud by international observers) with subjective data (such as the impartiality of the election watchdog, the extent to which the legislature is able to hold the executive to account and harassment of civil society organizations). The V-dem indices of electoral democracy and liberal democracy are based on an aggregation of such subjective and objective indicators.

Trends in the two sets of indicators have diverged over the past decade. The objective indicators point to a trend of democratic stability, while the subjective ones point to democratic backsliding, Little and Meng show.

Given that these subjective indicators are scored by a panel of political experts, it is possible that their judgement is influenced by global media coverage of autocracies over the past decade, Little and Meng say. Hence, expert assessments of a decline in democratic health may reflect greater media attention on this issue rather than an actual decline in the ‘true’ state of democracy. Their argument is only a hypothesis at this stage, and needs further corroboration. Nonetheless, they raise valid doubts on the subjective components of well-known democracy indices.

A small sample of people from similar backgrounds can distort the scoring patterns of subjective indicators. Expanding the sample size of such surveys, and providing greater details on respondent backgrounds can help check bias and bolster the credibility of global democracy indices.

In India’s case, there are several objective indicators that point to a deepening of democracy over the past few decades: the growing turnout of women voters, a decline in instances of ‘booth-capturing’ and the growing share of legislators from socially marginalized castes.

Yet, there are valid concerns on issues that elude objective measurement, such as the growing opacity around electoral funding, rising bigotry in our public discourse, and the harassment of civil society organizations unaffiliated to the Sangh Parivar. India’s decline in V-Dem indices since 2008 is largely because of poor scores on the relatively subjective indicators.

Several questions pertaining to a country’s democratic health—like the question of media freedom, or whether a person from a minority group is able to voice her opinions freely, or whether the judiciary is acting independently—are inherently subjective. Yet, answers to such questions are vital to gauge the true state of a democracy.

The best way to get such answers is to organize a large-scale survey to elicit opinions across the country. It would allow us to see how democratic freedoms vary across regions and demographic groups. Such a survey must be conducted by an independent body and must be perceived as such for it to be taken seriously.

This calls for a collaborative effort between academics, media houses, businesses and civil society organizations. The findings of such a survey can help check democratic erosion across all tiers of government, enabling all Indian citizens to realize the freedoms envisioned by India’s founding fathers.

Pramit Bhattacharya is a Chennai-based journalist. His Twitter handle is pramit_b

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