India slipping on the global democracy index should come as no surprise. The way the Centre is handling the anti-CAA protests has clearly led to widespread perception that there is growing intolerance to dissent and suppression of democratic rights in the country. The Democracy Index 2019, compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, seeks to show a mirror to the global regimes in matters of political, economic and social liberalism. It is a matter of concern that India has declined in its overall score from 7.23 in 2018 to 6.9 now and it has been classified as “flawed democracy,” just two steps away from being called an authoritarian regime. The index termed the erosion of civil liberties as the primary cause of India’s democratic regression. The last six months have severely damaged the country’s image. Except for pluralism and electoral processes, where India scored 8.67, there has been a drastic slide in the perception of governance, political culture and civil liberties. In a way, it is the functionality and leadership of the government that has clearly been put under the scanner. Instead of trashing the report as “western conspiracy to sully the country’s image”, the ruling dispensation must take the findings as a wake-up call and work earnestly to improve the key indicators, particularly tolerating dissent and fostering a culture of healthy debate. Unfortunately, the discourse in the country has become so polarised that any voice of dissent is sought to be branded as anti-national and this binary is being amplified in social media.
In the past, India was respected all over the world for its liberal and democratic ethos. However, the otherisation and ghettoisation of politics, perpetuated through citizenship laws and a census based on profiling, are clearly divisive in intent and end up pitting people against each other. The crackdown on students and civil society protests has been the proverbial last straw. The countrywide internet shutdowns on dissenting voices and protests have given India the dubious distinction of authorising over 67% of the world’s internet shutdowns. There are genuine fears that the twin policies of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) will result in religious discrimination and undermine the spirit of the Constitution. The country cannot afford to get bogged down with such bitterly divisive issues at a time when there are more pressing public issues crying for attention. In view of the nationwide unrest over the CAA-NRC, the Centre must reach out to the people and allay their apprehensions instead of seeking to suppress the dissent. Contentious politics cannot be force-fed in a democracy. A sharp and sustained focus on reviving the economy, job creation and social support areas could help the country significantly improve its global standing.