Neo-colonialism of Global Indices: Why India rejects opinion-based, perception indices where even Afghanistan, Hong Kong are more democratic

New Delhi: India has rejected several opinion-based indices for their bias, flawed methodology and opacity owing to the “clout of a tiny cabal of Western think-tanks in this space…a form of neo-colonialism”.

The Economic Advisory Council (EAC) to the PM has punched holes in these subjective indices in a recent working paper titled, ‘Why India Does Poorly On Global Perception Indices: A case study of three opinion-based indices-Freedom in the World index; EIU Democracy Index and Variety of Democracy Index’. The paper has been authored by EAC-PM member and writer Sanjeev Sanyal, and deputy director Akanksha Arora.

The paper has highlighted the absurdity of these indices—they compare nations across the world in terms of democracy, freedoms, civil liberties etc—since countries such as Afghanistan, Cuba and Sri Lanka have fared better than India on several parameters.

Why not just reject these indices?

The working paper has taken the bull by its horns, confronting the suppositions of the so-called “experts” and the flaws of their findings. They have deconstructed the indices, starting from the fundamental premises and observations.

“One way to respond to this is ignore these as mere opinions. However, the issue is that they have concrete implications. For instance, these indices are inputs into the World Bank’s World Governance Indicators (WGI) that, in turn, have approximately 18-20 per cent weightage in sovereign ratings. So, they can’t be completely ignored,” the paper explains as to why the indices need to be confronted, rather than just ignored.

“Problem is that these opinions find their way into concrete things into sovereign ratings through the World Bank’s WGI index. The growing calls for ESG scores in investment/trade decisions will give opinion-based indices even greater currency. It is time to demand transparency,” said Sanyal taking to Twitter.

“The clout of a tiny cabal of Western think-tanks in this space is a form of neo-colonialism,” Sanyal said in another tweet, adding, “It needs to be challenged.”

Sovereignty of nations reduced to arbitrary subjective assessment

The paper has called out the “experts” that reduce the sovereignty of nations to their “subjective perceptions”.

“Various international agencies come up with global indices which rank countries on various parameters such as democracy, press freedom, internet freedom etc. Some of these indices are purely or primarily based on perception of some “experts”.

However, it is important to note that these indices do not just form media and public opinion, but also end up influencing some concrete things such as sovereign ratings. These will become even more important in future as Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) indices are introduced into global business/investment decisions. Hence, they cannot be ignored as mere opinions of some agency,” the working paper said.

“A country’s sovereign rating is based on certain subjective factors such as assessments of governance, political stability, rule of law, corruption, press freedom etc., in addition to various economic indicators.”

This paper takes up the three indices—Freedom in the World Index by Freedom House; Democracy Index by Economist Intelligence Unit; and V-DEM indices by the Varieties of Democracy Institute, which are part of World Bank’s World Governance Index (WGI), and, therefore, have significant bearing on India’s sovereign ratings.

Freedom in the World Index — “Cherry picking” sources

This is an annual global report on political rights and civil liberties and is being published since 1973 by Freedom House. Freedom House is a NGO headquartered in New York, United States. It classifies countries in three categories: Free (F), Partially Free (PF) and Not Free (NF).

In the first place, the anti-India bias of the index is reflected in its considering the UT of Jammu and Kashmir, an alienable part of India, as a separate territory from India and its practice of imparting it separate ranking starting 1990. The index considers Jammu and Kashmir as ‘Not Free’.

According to the EAC working paper, India’s score on the index has consistently declined starting 2018. The report observes that the decline can be attributed to India’s declining score in the category of Civil Liberties. “India is now considered to be only ‘partially free’ after it was downgraded down from free status in 2021 report,” the paper noted.

The paper rightly points out the absurdity of this finding since the India had been downgraded to ‘partially free’ category during the Emergency imposed by former PM Indira Gandhi.

“Clearly this is arbitrary. What did the years of emergency which was a period of obvious political repression, suspended elections, official censoring of the press, jailing of opponents without charge, banned labour strikes etc. have in common with period of economic liberalisation and of today?” the working paper asked.

The report claims that the index is selective in the way thy pick their sources. “Cherry picking” is how the paper classifies the sources used for rankings.

“Our analysis of the annual reports show that they use some media reports and cherry pick some issues to make the judgements.”

“For instance, the report notes that “Muslim candidates notably won 27 of 545 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, up from 11 22 previously. However, this amounted to just 5 percent of the seats in the chamber, whereas Muslims make up some 14 percent of the population”. Note that number of seats have increased over the years, so it’s not clear how the situation has worsened over time,” the paper cited as an example.

In another example of the arbitrariness of the index, the working paper cited the death of journalists in India in 2021. “Another example is that the report notes that journalists risk harassment, death threats, and physical violence in the course of their work. Here Freedom House cites figures from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) claiming that 5 journalists were killed in India in 2021, which is the highest figure for any country. However, the report ignores that from the same CPJ’s data, India’s 5 journalist deaths represented 11 per cent of the world total, and in comparison, India constitutes 22 per cent of the world’s population outside China (where journalist deaths are not included in the CPJ data).”

The EAC paper further pointed to the sheer non-sense of the index as reflected in its cross-country analysis or the relative ranking of countries in the world vis-à-vis India.

Norther Cyprus has been scores above India even after the ethnic cleansing of its indigenous Greek population and when Northern Cyprus is recognised only by Turkey and not even by the UN. It is a Turkish-controlled area, even called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Despite all this, In the latest report of 2022, India’s score of the Freedom in the World Index is 66 and Norther Cyprus scores 77.

“Mongolia ended its one-party system in 1990 in favour of free multiparty elections only in 199011, however its score is 84 and it is categorised as Free Country,” the working paper said.

EIU-Democracy Index: India less democratic than Hong Kong!

Published by the research and consulting arm of the publishers of ‘The Economist’ magazine, the index started in 2006 and ranks 165 independent States on the state of democracy under four heads: Full democracies; Flawed democracies; Hybrid regimes; and Authoritarian regimes.

The EAC working paper cites how the questions are “quite subjective, making objective scoring difficult”, which further muddles the relative ranking of countries.

The two sources for their rankings are “experts” and “public opinion”.

The report is so opaque that it “does not reveal the number, nationality, credentials or even field of expertise of the experts”.

The second source, public-opinion surveys are equally flawed. They are based mainly on the World Values Survey conducted by World Values Survey Association. If these are not available for a country for the given reference period, then it is the expert opinion that dominates this part too.

Now, figure this: The last available World Values Survey for India is from way back in 2012! “Since the latest public opinion poll has not been conducted after 2012, this implies that the score for India is based only on expert opinions since 2012 till today,” the EAC paper pointed.

Given this, one is bound to question India’s ranking in this index and the veracity of the index itself since the rankings are absurd. “India has been kept in the category of ‘Flawed democracy’ since 2006, when the EIU Democracy index was first released. India’s rank deteriorated sharply from 27 in 2014 to 53 in 2020,” the EAC paper said.

To one’s total surprise, the index of 2021 cites coronavirus pandemic time handling by the government as adding to the erosion of civil liberties. The paper went on to ask if India was doing anything else than containing the pandemic, just as other countries. Obviously, No.

In the 2022 index India showed some improvement, but that has been attributed to the repeal of the three farm laws, a language that betrays the influence of the left-liberal lobby that summarily been rejected from all quarters. This sounds more like left-leaning activists than experts of any kind, since these “experts” are taking a political position.

The relative position of India also betrays the bias of this index. Unbelievably, the index places countries in acute political turmoil such as Malaysia, Sri Lanka and even Hong Kong above India.

V-DEM indices: Popular vote more significant in Afghanistan than India!

Produced by the Varieties of Democracy Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, the report encompasses six indices: Liberal Democracy Index, Electoral Democracy Index, Liberal Component index, Egalitarian Component Index, Participatory Component Index and Deliberative Component Index.

Just as the previous two indices, this index too does not divulge its “experts” or how they are chosen or why they are chosen. These experts can be academics or professionals from the media, or public affairs, such as analysts, editors and judges. The confidentiality is more of a guarded secrecy that only adds to the opacity of the index.

Figure this: One of the components of V-DEM Participatory Component Index is Direct Popular Vote based on the question as to what extent the direct popular vote is utilized. So, while the US and India score zero on this, countries such as Afghanistan score better!

“Now this is a question which is not a meaningful way to capture democracy. It may be possible for small countries like Switzerland, but not for country with size like India. India (Table 5) and even US gets a zero score on this variable, whereas Afghanistan (0.02), Belarus (0.064) and Cuba (0.151) gets a score greater than zero,” the EAC paper said.

Conclusion: Make-in-India

The paper quite pertinently observes: “…independent Indian think tanks should be encouraged to do similar perception-based indices for the world in order to break the monopoly of a handful of western institutions.”

“As one can see, the methodologies used by these perception-based indices is not tenable. Since these indices are inputs into the World Governance Indicators, Government of India should request World Bank to demand greater transparency and accountability from these institutions.”

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