Another take on the Indian democracy debates

India’s downgrading in some measures of democracy met with pushback from some Indians (and the Indian government). My take on these dynamics from back in 2019 is here, and I am not a coder and have no relationship with any of the measurement projects, though I certainly see their value, despite limits, more than their critics.

One productive way to take on this disjuncture comes from a 2019 Pew survey. This figure on the high level of satisfaction with democracy in India has been making the rounds on twitter:

This is very important and needs to be taken into careful account in any discussion of what democracy in India is/isn’t and how to describe it. There’s a caveat worth mentioning before we plow ahead – recent surveys of democratic satisfaction in Pakistan also show majority satisfaction (though with a much smaller margin – 59-36% in 2018 IRI; 54-47% in 2018 Gallup), which would logically lead to a conclusion that is perhaps not what some stalwarts of India would agree with (insert qualifiers about surveys across methods, environment for open answers, etc). And it’s not obvious that they would agree that Japan’s negative net satisfaction means that one of India’s key Asian partners is actually an autocracy, or the same for other strategically friendly states like France and the US. Sometimes indicators hold up in comparative perspective, sometimes they don’t.

But leaving that aside, I think the exact same 2019 Pew survey helps get at some of the disjuncture in the broader debate (with yet another caution, in this case about comparative response rates, that I don’t have the time to track down this morning so this is all a case of getting what you pay for).

In addition to general satisfaction with democracy, Indians are satisfied that voting gives them a say:

But what substantial portions of the public view as very important appears to be rather different than in some other electoral democracies. Here are questions on the importance of freedom from state interference for human rights organizations and opposition parties:

And the differences are, I think, more striking when it comes to free speech, uncensored media, and internet freedom:

This may or may not be remotely informative given the problems of cross-national surveys and how they are interpreted: none of this may actually tell us much. But if the satisfaction-with-democracy finding is seen as plausible/important, then we should treat these others as plausible/important as well. It may help to account for why this debate (both among Indian and between Indians and foreigners) is met with, among other things, a kind of mutual disbelief between those who appear to sincerely see India as obviously democratic and thus criticism as purely driven by all-consuming Modi hatred, and those who are baffled that anyone could see the events of the last few years as anything but a dynamic of democratic decline (along at least some key dimensions). There can be fundamental tensions between conceptualizations/definitions of democracy that weight/balance differently advocacy of/concerns about majority rule and the tyranny of the majority. And which you choose matters a lot.

An article I like for unpacking some of this is Khosla and Vaishnav, which tries to sidestep the simple coding question: “In today’s India, the assent of the people is considered to be not only necessary but also sufficient to justify all forms of state action. Individually, the three faces of the Indian state—what we call the “ethnic state,” the “absolute state,” and the “opaque state”—bring to light an underappreciated side of India’s contemporary political order. . . the most striking feature of India’s new constitutionalism is the presence of popular authorization alongside the absence of the rule of law.”

P.S. these issues are also very much at play in the United States.

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