When India was recently downgraded in global democracy rankings, it created a perfect storm within the academic and media establishments. The three democracy-ranking institutes that published the reports – Sweden’s Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem), the Economist Intelligence Unit and the US government-funded think tank Freedom House – were feted by all those opposed to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Supporters of the BJP dismissed these reports as yet another attempt to discredit India by hostile entities that feel increasingly threatened by the country’s unstoppable rise on the world stage under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The reports cited human rights violations, oppression of religious minorities and muzzling of free speech and other factors to cast their verdict on the depressing state of the world’s largest democracy. V-Dem went to claim that India was no longer a liberal democracy, dubbing it an “electoral autocracy” on par with Russia. Freedom House declared that India was only “partially free”, ranking it 85th in the world.
These think tanks are not alone in sounding the bugle on India’s deteriorating democracy. The New York Times and The Washington Post routinely describe the country as a dystopian hellscape teeming with Nazi-like Hindu storm troopers crushing dissent and criticism under the weight of their jackboots. But how accurate is this picture?
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Professor Salvatore Babones, an American sociologist and statistician, published a rigorous analysis of think tanks rankings: “India at 75: Who are the Barbarians at the Gate?.” He questioned the credibility of these reports, their authors and the dominant Western narrative. It is important to note that key people in V-Dem are closely linked to the Pakistani establishment and have an interest in downgrading Indian democracy.
In this interview with Babones, we discussed the role played by India’s intellectual class in portraying the country as a fascist state, the dubious methods used by Western think tanks to arrive at their conclusions, the errors in the latest Global Hunger Index that places India at rock-bottom, why he had to register as a “foreign agent” with the US Department of Justice, and his work on Donald Trump, populism and authoritarianism.
The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Vikram Zutshi: Why does the Indian intellectual class malign India and portray the country as a “fascist state” as you have stated in your public appearances and articles?
Salvatore Babones: I don’t think India’s elite intellectuals actually want to harm India. All indications are that what they actually want is to push India toward greater liberalism and an improved democracy. But sometimes idealism can go too far, especially when people become so wrapped up in the righteousness of their cause that they are willing to warp the facts in their favor.
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Intellectuals sometimes rightly accuse politicians of misrepresenting the truth. Politicians are, after all, politicians. Intellectuals should remember that they are not politicians. Their job is to tell the truth, even when they don’t like it. Unfortunately, too many intellectuals in India and elsewhere abuse the trust placed in them as guardians of truth to promote their own political agendas instead. They often present their own subjective opinions as objective truth.
Zutshi: What is the empirical basis for Freedom House and the other institutes to classify India as “partly free,” and what are the errors you have found in their methodology?
Babones: International democracy evaluations like that from Freedom House are mainly based on expert opinion. Freedom House has a particularly small panel of experts: 128 analysts and “nearly 50” advisors who together have to cover 211 countries and territories. These experts use their own opinions, buttressed by reports from think tanks, NGOs, and other sources, to make their evaluations. This approach is dubious at best, but in my research I haven’t criticized the method. I have instead focused on tracking down the evidence adduced by Freedom House in support of its rankings.
Some of this evidence is very obviously culturally biased. For example, Freedom House faults Indian states for banning cow slaughter, yet it does not seem to mind that horse slaughter is banned in the United States. Other evidence is purely mendacious. Freedom House criticizes India for journalist deaths, when in fact journalists are actually safer in India than in most of the rest of the world.
Zutshi: You had to register as a “foreign agent” for some work that you had undertaken for an Indian media company. Critics say that you represent Indian interests and hence cannot be seen as an unbiased commentator. Would you care to explain your side of the story?
Babones: I accepted $4,000 for a consulting assignment two years ago, representing approximately 2.5% of my year 2020 income. Of course, I understand that $4,000 is a lot of money in a country like India, where the GDP per capita is just $2,000 per year. But for me, this was a small contract to help a private media company learn how to reach international audiences. To put this in context, India Today spent a similar amount of money to bring me to Mumbai for the recent India Today Conclave.
Unfortunately, critics have used the “foreign agent” label to imply some kind of negative behavior on my part. This perfectly illustrates the dishonesty of the intellectual class. Anyone who is educated enough to have looked up my foreign agency registration is aware that “foreign agent” is a technical term that merely means that I worked for someone — a “foreign principal” — outside the country. It is an epithet that may sound bad, but, in reality, only reflects the fact that I have always been scrupulously honest in my regulatory filings.
Zutshi: Tell us about your academic specialty and briefly summarize your 2018 book, The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism and the Tyranny of Experts.
I am a comparative political sociologist. In 2018, I wrote the book you refer to. It was named among the “best on politics” by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ). I am very proud that Barton Swaim, the WSJ reviewer penned: “Salvatore Babones, an American-born professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Sydney, doesn’t defend Mr. Trump or his administration. But he does suggest the Trump phenomenon may galvanize a revival of democratic self-rule. Mr. Babones, whose ideological affiliations remain a mystery to me, does not fear, as many American liberals do, that Mr. Trump is an ‘authoritarian’ president. He believes, rather, that the president’s populism is a protest against a different kind of authoritarianism: the rule of unelected “experts.”
The book is a love-letter to populism, not an apologia for Trump. I don’t mind if intellectuals disrespect Donald Trump. I mind when intellectuals disrespect Trump voters. Democracy is founded on respect for the voters — all voters — and intellectuals too often forget that even the least educated voter has the same right to an opinion as the most educated intellectual.
Note that I wrote a book on progressive social policy in 2015. Last year, I wrote a book on Australian university reform that focused on problems with the international university rankings. As a quantitative social scientist with an MS in applied mathematics, I mainly teach social statistics and social policy analysis at the University of Sydney.
Zutshi: India’s ranking in the 2022 Global Hunger Index (GHI) is 107 out of 121 countries, slipping from its 2021 ranking of 101. You found errors in their methodology, implying that the ranking was falsified or at best sloppy. What is your rationale for doubting the GHI ranking for India?
Babones: The key problem with India’s reported drop in the 2022 GHI was an incorrect figure for the 2014 GHI report. India’s reported 2022 fall was driven almost entirely by an incorrectly recorded rise in the number of children who have low body weight for their height. That is termed wasting.
In fact, levels of wasting declined in India between 2014 and 2022, which is only natural, considering that India’s economy grew by 50% over that period. The problem is that the 2014 GHI figure for wasting was based on a projection, presumably provided by the previous government that was far too optimistic. When the actual 2014 data from India’s National Family Health Survey (NFHS) were released in 2015, they showed wasting levels were much higher than the estimates that had been provided to GHI in 2014.
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Unfortunately, the GHI has still not corrected the 2014 numbers for India. They’re still reporting 15.1% wasting for 2014, when the true NFHS statistic for 2014 was 21.0%. This fell to 19.3% in 2022. So, India has experienced a fall, not a rise in wasting, making the GHI figures erroneous.
Remember, 2014 was an election year. The previous government may have recorded a dramatic reduction in wasting. This figure turned out to be incorrect. Yet GHI failed to take this into account.
This is just one example of how rankings unfairly rank India. India is doing much better at feeding its children and in running its democracy than Western experts and journalists give it credit.
[At 17.15 Eastern Time, we corrected this article. The earlier version incorrectly mentioned that Professor Salvatore Babones registered as a “foreign agent” with the Indian government, not the US Department of Justice.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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