Member of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council Shamika Ravi said that under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi democracy is flourishing in India and its roots run deep.
While delivering the 8th Professor Sarat Mahanta Memorial Lecture at the Royal Global University in Guwahati on Monday, Ravi effectively demolished the myth, propagated by the self-styled ‘democracy watchdogs’ in the West, that democracy is in peril and on the decline in India under the present Narendra Modi government. “These ‘watchdogs’ also allege that India has turned majoritarian under Narendra Modi,” Shamika Ravi said.
While questioning the objectivity of such assessments and their flawed designs and methodologies, Ravi said that such perception-based surveys are unscientific, non-representative, biased and non-verifiable. While the classification of countries as ‘democratic’ and ‘non-democratic’ are based on objective and verifiable criteria, quantifying the functioning of democracy or objectively assessing whether democracy is strengthening or weakening remains a challenge.
“International attempts to qualify the functioning of democracy are made essentially by conducting perception-based surveys of academics, professionals and civil society members. But these surveys are not representative when it comes to a large country like India with more than 90 crore voters, more than 100 spoken languages and significant cultural, socio-economic and geographical diversity. The design and methodology of a survey to quantify the functioning of democracy in India and to objectively assess the functioning of democracy in India have to capture the country’s vast diversity and make it completely representative. But such a rigorous, time-consuming and expensive exercise has never been undertaken and the underlying assumption by democracy rankers is that the opinion of a very few selected elites within a country is representative of the views and experiences of the entire population,” Ravi said.
As for the measurement or quantification of democracy, Ravi argued that the “elite opinion-makers” who participate in international surveys are always favourably disposed towards those regimes that give them privileged access to power.
“But if they do not have a good rapport with a government elected by the people of the country, or are deprived of benefits and privileges by that government, they (the elite opinion-makers) decry declining democracy. A change in perception of the elite opinion makers does not reflect declining democratic institutions but changes in their personal preferences and privileges,” she said.
Dr Ravi suggested that rather than perception-based surveys of the strength and functioning of democracy in India that are biassed and unscientific, an objective to assess the functioning of democracy in India would be to measure the ‘responsiveness of the democratically elected government to the material needs of the marginalised people across religions, social groups and geographies’.
“Perhaps a fundamental feature of strengthening democracy in India is that the voices of the weak and the marginalised cannot be suppressed or silenced by the elites,” said Ravi.
Ravi said that the poor and marginalised people in a democracy expect their government to “liberate them from their daily drudgery and struggles by providing them access to basic amenities like water, toilets, formal finance, clean cooking gas and instruments of connectivity and communication.
She pointed out that for the last several years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often spoken publicly about providing every basic facility to every citizen in every area of the country and reducing the scope for any corruption and discrimination in people’s access to basic amenities.
With this in mind, Ravi focused on the present government’s track record in providing six basic amenities–electricity, access to toilets, access to formal banking, clean cooking gas, mobile phones and water-on-premises (piped water to every household)–to the poorest 20 per cent households across religions, social groups and geographies.
Dr Ravi explained that the reason for exploring the performance of the government in providing basic amenities across districts is because districts in India vary in religious diversity. Since most schemes in India are targeted and implemented at the district level, the best gauge of the performance of a government and to test for any bias in their functioning should be done at the district level.
She analysed the household-level nationally representative data from two rounds of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) – round 4 conducted in 2015-2016 and round 5 in 2019-2021.
She pointed out that since NFHS data is self-reported by respondents, they are likely to be under-estimates but are never overestimates of the ground realities across the country.
“The primary objective of this exercise is to scrutinise whether there is any discernible bias in favour of or against any particular population within the country,” she said.
“Based on the nationally representative sample of more than 12 lakh households across 2015-2016 and 2019-2021, we do not find any evidence that the government catered to only one community (the Hindu majority) or against any minority groups in the country. We also do not find any discrimination between geographies and religious clusters in the provision of basic amenities such as electricity, toilets, water, bank accounts, mobile phones and LPG,” she revealed.
Displaying statistics from the surveys, Ravi pointed out that Muslims have benefited as much as, if not more, from the present government’s development initiatives.
The data also showed that all religious and social groups were equal beneficiaries of the Modi government’s interventions in providing basic amenities to people.
Growth in India reached exponential levels during the time of the Vajpayee government, she pointed out while quoting statistics.
India has not fallen behind in Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) during the pandemic even during the Covid-induced pandemic.
Also, Indian society is far more peaceful today, as is evident from crime statistics. Other indicators like a fast reduction in infant mortality rate also indicate the country’s all-around and inclusive growth.
Speaking on the state of finances of the North East, Ravi said that states have to generate their own revenue and become self-sufficient in revenue. Northeastern states cannot depend on largesse from the Centre forever.
Ravi drew the conclusion based on the results of her extensive, objective and scientific survey that the roots of democracy run deep and its health is reaffirmed in its day-to-day functioning and practice.
There is no discrimination in development in India. But global narratives paint a negative picture and the ‘democracy in decline’ discourse is part of the strategy against India.
Assam Governor Gulab Chand Kataria paid rich tributes to Professor Mahanta and called upon the present generation to follow his ideals.
The Assam Governor, recalling his days as a school teacher, said that it was the most satisfying time of his life. A good teacher, he said, leaves behind a legacy that survives and inspires generations.
The programme started with a ‘prarthana’ by Birina Pathak.
Apart from Water Resources Minister Pijush Hazarika, a number of MLAs and MPs, Assam DGP GP Singh and a number of top police, army and civil administration officers and prominent members of civil society attended the programme.
The Professor Sarat Mahanta Memorial Lecture is held every year to commemorate the birth anniversary of the late educationist, social worker and human rights advocate.
Born on May 1, 1937, into a reputable family from the historic Sri Sri Chaliha Bare Xatra in Nazira of Sivasagar district, Professor Mahanta served as Head of the Department of History at Sivasagar College for more than 33 years.
Professor Mahanta was the Xatradhikar of Chaliha Bare Xatra and chief advisor of Sivasagar Press Club till his demise on June 18, 2013. Having worked as a journalist for two decades for various well-known publications, he authored several books and many thoughtful articles. He was also an Honorary Member of the Assam Human Rights Commission for almost four years.
The Professor Sarat Mahanta Memorial Lecture series has featured distinguished speakers: author and journalist Sudeeo Chakravarti, political scientist Yogendra Yadav, eminent economist and NITI Ayog member Professor Bibek Debroy, former Minister of State for Civil Aviation Jayant Sinha, former Meghalaya Governor Tathagata Roy, Israeli Ambassador to India Dr Ron Malka and Ambassador Deepak Vohra.