Francisco Rodriguez-Jimenez” post_date=”August 10, 2023 04:20″ pUrl=”https://www.fairobserver.com/video/fo-talks-make-sense-of-the-2023-spanish-elections/” pid=”139263″ post-content=”
On July 23, Spain went to the polls. This snap election failed to produce a clear result. No party won a simple majority in the 350-strong Congress of Deputies. 

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist party won 122 seats, two more than in the 2019 elections. The center-right Popular Party (PP) won 136 seats, up from 89 in 2019. The far-right Vox party would support the PP leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo. Yet it took only 33 seats, in contrast to 52 in 2019. This would leave Feijóo seven seats short of an absolute majority of 176 in the parliament.

Spain had two elections in 2019 because the first one failed to produce a government. It has had regional elections since, most importantly in Catalonia, Castilla y León and Andalucía. Now, it might have another election in 2023.

What is going on in Spain?

In Spanish politics, four main parties dominate. The Socialists, the PP, Vox and far-left Sumar are the main national parties. Regional parties in Basque Country and Catalonia form a fifth force. Their relationship with national parties and with Spain itself remains problematic. Both Basque Country and Catalonia have had issues with Madrid over independence. Carles Puigdemont, the leader of the Catalan Junts party, remains in exile.

In some ways, the regional parties suffered, particularly in Catalonia. The regions no longer seem to want independence. The far-right and the far-left declined too. Together, the two national parties were the big winners. Yet they are too ideologically opposed to come together in a Germany-style national coalition.

Many are calling for such a grand coalition. It would have the support of the majority of the Spanish people. However, party leaders fear that they will lose the support of their members if they negotiate with the other party.

Vox represents the legacy of General Francisco Franco, Spain’s brutal dictator who held power from 1936 to 1975. Its leaders split from the PP about ten years ago in disgust at the party’s softness towards separatists. If Vox supports the PP, there is a risk that no other party may join the coalition. The fall in popular support for Vox demonstrates that the far-right wave of Italy has not crossed the Mediterranean. The success of Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia has not been replicated in Spain.

Spain is experiencing the same polarization that we see in democracies like the US, the UK and Israel. By European standards, the Spanish economy was not doing too badly. Apparently, Sánchez’s coalition failed to win not because of the economy but because of culture and identity.

Why do incumbents lose, and why is it so hard to form a government?

Until 2015, the Socialists and the PP were the two dominant parties. Charges of corruption damaged them with Podemos and Ciudadanos emerging as plausible alternatives. Vox did rather well in 2019, which might have led voters to back other parties to keep this Francoist party out of power. 

Yet the incumbents have lost power. According to Carlos Meléndez, people have voted out 85% of incumbents over the last five to six years. This pattern of negative voting has produced governments that are very fragile and have little popular support, existing only because voters opposed the alternative more.

In the Spanish context, another issue adds to the anti-incumbent phenomenon. As prime minister, Sánchez does not enjoy within his own country the good reputation he has abroad. He won the party leadership by upending the traditional establishment. In 2018. Sánchez convinced other parties to vote together against Mariano Rajoy, who was then the leader of the PP and prime minister. This has been the only successful no-confidence vote in Spanish history, and many Spaniards think of Sánchez as a Machiavellian for initiating it.

Political commentators and analysts criticized the no-confidence move widely. They take the view that fresh elections were the more appropriate means to address Rajoy’s alleged corruption. By working closely with regional parties, Sánchez became politically toxic. Many Castilian-speaking voters, who form the vast majority in Spain, still demonize the Socialist leader.

While people may have voted negatively in Spain, they have not gone for the extremes this time around. However, they have not voted in a manner that allows for a stable government to form. Neither the Socialists nor the PP are likely to get the votes to reach the magic 176 mark.

In some democracies, horse-trading or the return of Puigdemont might be possibilities. However, Spanish politics is too ideological to forgive members of parliament who jump ship, and Spain’s Supreme Court has issued a new arrest order for Puigdemont. Unlike the Italians, the Spaniards do not seem to form coalitions easily. So, the country may find it difficult to form a government.

This political instability comes at an unfortunate time for the country. Spain exercises the EU’s rotating presidency until January 2024. Without a government in power, Spain is likely to squander its chance to set the European agenda and play a leading role in the bloc.

The views expressed in this article/video are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
” post-content-short=”
On July 23, Spain went to the polls. This snap election failed to produce a clear result. No party won a simple majority in the 350-strong Congress of Deputies. 

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist party won 122 seats, two more than in the 2019 elections. The center-right Popular…” post_summery=”Spanish elections have failed to throw up a clear result and another election may ensue by the end of the year. National centrist parties have emerged stronger at the expense of far-right, far-left and regional parties. Yet none of the two national parties has the numbers to form a government at a time Spain will hold the rotating presidency of the EU.” post-date=”Aug 10, 2023″ post-title=”FO° Talks: Make Sense of the 2023 Spanish Elections” slug-data=”fo-talks-make-sense-of-the-2023-spanish-elections”>

FO° Talks: Make Sense of the 2023 Spanish Elections




Atul Singh” post_date=”August 09, 2023 05:58″ pUrl=”https://www.fairobserver.com/video/fo-exclusive-make-sense-of-the-hellish-rioting-in-france/” pid=”139235″ post-content=”
French banlieues, the poor suburbs of its great cities, went up in flames. Mobs targeted town halls, police stations, schools and any building associated with the French state. They were triggered by the killing of Nahel M, 17, after police say he failed to comply with an order to stop his car in Nanterre near Paris.

These are not the riots to hit France. The first banlieue riots occurred in 1979 in Vaulx-en-Velin, a poor suburb of Lyon, when a teenager slit his veins after an arrest for stealing a car. Two years later, another attempt to deal with a car theft sparked days of rioting in nearby Vénissieux. 

The deaths of two youths in the same area resulted in similar troubles in 1990 and 1993. 

By far the worst unrest occurred in 2005. Two teenagers died in an electrical substation near Paris while hiding from police. Suburbs erupted up and down the country. Cars were burnt, shops looted and police attacked, triggering a three-week state of emergency.

Why is France experiencing yet more riots?

There are two countervailing views on this issue. One view is that the violence is the result of poverty and discrimination. Entrenched social ills ensure that France’s bleak estates remain tinderboxes. Another view holds that the rioting is mainly a law-and-order issue. Gangs and petty criminals are using anger over a tragic death as an excuse to sow mayhem.

Both views hold some water. In 1977, then Prime Minister Raymond Barre launched the first plan to regenerate housing estates, expressing concern that they might turn into “ghettos” but somehow this effort never succeeded. France’s infamous bureaucrats have set up one official body after another but none of them have really succeeded.

France has the National Council for Cities, the Inter-ministerial Commission for Cities of Urban Social Development, the National Agency for Urban Renewal and many others. An alphabet soup of acronyms for various initiatives, from FNRU (Nation Programme for Urban Renovation) to ZUS (Sensitive Urban Zones) is a testimony to the failure of imagination and implementation by elitist and out-of-touch French bureaucrats.

At the same time, law and order has indeed declined in France. Anyone who has gone to Montmartre has faced hassle while the police look the other way. Furthermore, many banlieues are no-go areas for most people, including sometimes the police. Given the fact that the people in these poor neighborhoods are from former French colonies, they have a sense of resentment against their former oppressors. Continued experience of discrimination, exclusion and racism hardens those feelings.

A divided society

When Glenn lived in Grenoble in 1976, he often walked home alone after 11:00 pm. Most French cities, other than Paris, were then quiet at night. The only other people out on the street were lone, forlorn, Muslim North African men who had been brought in as “temporary workers,” without being allowed to bring their families. These workers have stayed on and brought their wives and have had children.

This immigrant population still finds itself foreign in France. Many French do not really consider them as French. Also, many immigrants themselves do not want to abandon their roots, especially if they are Muslim. France may not be experiencing a clash of civilizations but there is indeed a clash of cultures.

French secularism—laïcité—has shut out religion from the state. In the past, this struggle was with Catholicism. The state won that victory conclusively. Now, this struggle is with Islam. This underlines the bikini-burkini tension in la grande nation.

France being France, the state is extraordinarily overweening. The government controls 59% of the GDP. This means the unit of power is the French state and the seat of power is Paris, i.e. elite bureaucrats and politicians. Note that politicians are often former elite bureaucrats, (including almost all French presidents over the last seven decades) who run the country in an excessively centralized manner. So, the French blame the state for almost all their frustrations and look upon capturing the state to achieve any progress. This means the cycle set off in 1789 of mobs taking to the streets continues.

The views expressed in this article/video are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
” post-content-short=”
French banlieues, the poor suburbs of its great cities, went up in flames. Mobs targeted town halls, police stations, schools and any building associated with the French state. They were triggered by the killing of Nahel M, 17, after police say he failed to comply with an order to stop his car in…” post_summery=”The French state is overweening. Therefore, people blame it for almost all ills. Disaffected youth in rundown neighborhoods are out on the streets in frustration. This cycle of rioting has roots in the past and is likely to continue in the future.” post-date=”Aug 09, 2023″ post-title=”FO° Exclusive: Make Sense of the Hellish Rioting in France” slug-data=”fo-exclusive-make-sense-of-the-hellish-rioting-in-france”>

FO° Exclusive: Make Sense of the Hellish Rioting in France




Thomas Barfield” post_date=”July 30, 2023 23:33″ pUrl=”https://www.fairobserver.com/video/fo-talks-make-sense-of-afghanistan-with-thomas-barfield-part-3/” pid=”138368″ post-content=”
Afghanistan is in turmoil. The democratic government installed by the US collapsed after 20 years. This government was a result of a US-led attempt to modernize and reform Afghanistan. However, this Kabul regime lost popular support because of pervasive corruption and fell even before the last US troops left in 2021.

In part one and part two of this discussion, we explored the history of Afghanistan, covering ground until the collapse of the US-backed democratic government. In this final part, Barfield talks about what has happened after American troops have left and postulates what we can expect in the future.

Ashraf Ghani’s government spectacularly failed to keep the country together after the rather chaotic and hurried American pull-out from Afghanistan. Within just a week, the Taliban took over almost all of Afghanistan’s cities. Even Kabul fell without much resistance. 

Barfield explains that this pattern repeats throughout Afghanistan’s history. When a regime fails, its support evaporates and victors walk into the capital without much bloodshed. This creates the illusion that they hold absolute power. Many regimes that began this way ended up in the same manner, falling to the next set of troops that marched in.

Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic state going through much strife. Yet despite all of its political instability, Afghanistan is not on the verge of breaking up. Barfield argues that, if the country had to implode, it would have done so already. Afghanistan has survived despite its long history of instability and civil wars. 

In Afghanistan’s culture, ethnicity and nationality are two quite different things. There is no strong desire to create ethnic states. Rather, groups jockey for position within the loose mutli-ethnic state. Barfield’s extensive familiarity with Afghan ethnic politics enables him to dispel some popular, but inaccurate, Western assumptions about how “Pashtun,” “Tajik” or “Hazara” identity work.

For now, the Taliban are in charge. However, we do not know for how long. Also, it is important to analyze what they are trying to accomplish.

In some ways, the Taliban’s treatment of women has been even more oppressive than it was during their prior rule in the 1990s. They have instituted a complete social separation between men and women. Even in other conservative Islamic states like Iran, women are not excluded from the economy as they are now in Afghanistan.

Simultaneously, Afghanistan’s society is less receptive to this sort of imposition. Before the US invasion, the share of the population living in cities was around 10%. That number has now tripled to about 30%. What’s more, women are far more educated after 20 years of liberal governance than their mothers and grandmothers. These women will certainly have a hard time swallowing the Taliban’s new norms.

So, is Afghanistan headed for a crisis? It seems likely, but it is not clear what form this crisis will take. Afghanistan’s food insecurity is worrying, and the regime may not be able to moderate itself enough to cooperate with foreign aid—even from Pakistan. If the government has to seize large amounts of food from local farmers, it could undermine its own support.

If support for the Taliban falters, what possible alternative could replace them? Plausibly, the first place to look would be factions within the Taliban itself. Local groups could split from the hardline leadership over the women’s issue if they reason that the economic hardship is too great. Without the common enemy of the US, there is less that now unites the Taliban, and no telling what could happen when push comes to shove.

Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History published by the Princeton University Press. You can buy the book here.

[Anton Schauble wrote the first draft of this piece.]

The views expressed in this article/video are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
” post-content-short=”
Afghanistan is in turmoil. The democratic government installed by the US collapsed after 20 years. This government was a result of a US-led attempt to modernize and reform Afghanistan. However, this Kabul regime lost popular support because of pervasive corruption and fell even before the last US…” post_summery=”World-renowned Afghanistan expert and Oxford professor Thomas Barfield explains how Afghanistan’s US-installed government imploded even before the last American troops departed and posits what we can expect in the future.” post-date=”Jul 30, 2023″ post-title=”FO° Talks: Make Sense of Afghanistan With Thomas Barfield: Part 3″ slug-data=”fo-talks-make-sense-of-afghanistan-with-thomas-barfield-part-3″>

FO° Talks: Make Sense of Afghanistan With Thomas Barfield: Part 3




Thomas Barfield” post_date=”July 27, 2023 23:05″ pUrl=”https://www.fairobserver.com/video/fo-talks-make-sense-of-afghanistan-with-thomas-barfield-part-2/” pid=”138181″ post-content=”
Afghanistan is in turmoil. The democratic government installed by the US collapsed after 20 years. This government was a result of a US-led attempt to modernize and reform Afghanistan. However, this Kabul regime lost popular support because of pervasive corruption and fell even before the last US troops left in 2021.

In the first part of this discussion, we talked about the history of Afghanistan’s monarchy. In this second part, Barfield talks about the civil wars that have shaped Afghanistan over the last 50 years.

The communists saw themselves as the successors of the modernizing King Amanullah Khan. After overthrowing President Daoud Khan, they attempted to institute socialism. They found themselves unable, however, to impose order on the country.

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev decided to intervene. Despite misgivings, Brezhnev-led Moscow invaded Afghanistan in the hope to clean house and declare victory. The Soviet 1979 invasion turned into a ten-year slog that left one million Afghans dead. When the final Soviet troops left Afghanistan in 1989, they left behind a friendly leader in place. The former Soviet ally Mohammad Najibullah held on till 1992, but the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 sealed his fate.

Najibullah negotiated a deal with the anti-communist mujahideen rebels. What resulted was a situation where communists and Islamists shared power along ethnic lines, rather than ideological ones. However, warlords soon came to control the country and the country disintegrated into savage civil war.

The chaos destroyed the mujahideen’s reputation as victorious jihadis. The Taliban arose out of the southern city of Kandahar and with Pakistan’s backing took over much of the country, pushing back the warlords. In 2001, the Taliban found its control over Afghanistan threatened because of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, DC.

Because the Taliban would not give up Osama bin Laden to the US, President George W. Bush launched an invasion of Afghanistan. Most of the country sided with the US and troops of the Northern Alliance captured Kabul within a few weeks. 

The US established a democracy but the leaders Washington installed inspired little confidence. Elections occurred but there was little connection between politicians and the people in a country with little tradition of democracy. Assured of US backing, politicians had little to fear and stole the money generously coming from Washington. Misgovernance and corruption were rife. In this strange US-created democracy, politicians did not need popular support and made no attempt to win it.

Within a few years, the people of Afghanistan realized that no reform was in the offing. Presidents behaved like kings, ruling selfishly from palaces in Kabul and siphoning away the foreign aid.

Barfield explains that there are two kinds of corruption. Some leaders use money to buy power. Others, like those in Kabul, used power to buy money. What was left at the end was a state sucked dry of all authority, which enriched a few men who fled the country when their game was up.

Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History published by the Princeton University Press. You can buy the book here.

[Anton Schauble wrote the first draft of this piece.]

The views expressed in this article/video are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
” post-content-short=”
Afghanistan is in turmoil. The democratic government installed by the US collapsed after 20 years. This government was a result of a US-led attempt to modernize and reform Afghanistan. However, this Kabul regime lost popular support because of pervasive corruption and fell even before the last US…” post_summery=”World-renowned Afghanistan expert and Oxford professor Thomas Barfield explains how Afghanistan’s democratic government that the US installed became riddled with corruption and failed to attract popular support or win respect.” post-date=”Jul 27, 2023″ post-title=”FO° Talks: Make Sense of Afghanistan With Thomas Barfield: Part 2″ slug-data=”fo-talks-make-sense-of-afghanistan-with-thomas-barfield-part-2″>

FO° Talks: Make Sense of Afghanistan With Thomas Barfield: Part 2




Thomas Barfield” post_date=”July 26, 2023 05:59″ pUrl=”https://www.fairobserver.com/video/fo-talks-make-sense-of-afghanistan-with-thomas-barfield-part-1/” pid=”138011″ post-content=”
Afghanistan is in turmoil. The democratic government installed by the US collapsed after 20 years. This government was a result of a US-led attempt to modernize and reform Afghanistan. However, this Kabul regime lost popular support because of pervasive corruption and fell even before the last US troops left in 2021.

In the first part of this discussion, we dive into the history of Afghanistan. According to Barfield, the real problem for the democratic regime was simple: Afghans had never reached a consensus on what direction their country should take.

From its founding in 1823, Afghanistan’s monarchy was primarily concerned with centralizing power. Its goals were political, not ideological. The monarchs waged war across Afghanistan to subject the different tribes to their rule. They managed to retain power and independence despite the British Empire ruling British India to their east and dominating Iran to their west.

This does not mean that Afghanistan avoided British influence altogether. In 1928, King Amanullah Khan toured several Western capitals, including London, and returned to introduce reforms that would modernize his nation. His attempt to impose modernity resulted in a civil war. A period of unrest followed. Amanullah fled into exile and two of his successors were killed.

When the dust settled, young Mohammed Zahir Shah became king. Real power resided in his uncles’ hands though. The new regime bid adieu to modernity and let Afghans carry on as before. This settlement ended up keeping the peace in Afghanistan for 50 years. Some modernization of Afghanistan inevitably occurred, but the bigwigs in Kabul did not rock the boat with a reformist ideology. Their concerns, like those of the early Amirs, were more pragmatic.

In 1973 Daoud Khan, the prime minister, conducted a bloodless coup and ended the monarchy. Although he declared himself as president, he was a close relative of the monarch and was perceived more or less as another king. Khan consolidated power by suppressing right-wing Islamist forces but underestimated the strength of the Afghan left.

In 1978, Khan tried and failed a mass arrest of communists. This precipitated a coup by communist elements in the military, bringing an end to his rule.

Barfield’s Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History is published by the Princeton University Press. You can buy the book here.

[Anton Schauble wrote the first draft of this piece.]

The views expressed in this article/video are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
” post-content-short=”
Afghanistan is in turmoil. The democratic government installed by the US collapsed after 20 years. This government was a result of a US-led attempt to modernize and reform Afghanistan. However, this Kabul regime lost popular support because of pervasive corruption and fell even before the last US…” post_summery=”Afghanistan’s democratic government collapsed immediately after the US withdrew its troops in 2021. Clearly, the regime in Kabul never succeeded in conclusively winning hearts and minds. Professor Thomas Barfield, a top scholar on Afghanistan gives us context.” post-date=”Jul 26, 2023″ post-title=”FO° Talks: Make Sense of Afghanistan With Thomas Barfield: Part 1″ slug-data=”fo-talks-make-sense-of-afghanistan-with-thomas-barfield-part-1″>

FO° Talks: Make Sense of Afghanistan With Thomas Barfield: Part 1




Kanwal Sibal” post_date=”July 22, 2023 02:38″ pUrl=”https://www.fairobserver.com/video/an-indian-foreign-secretary-makes-sense-of-multipolarity/” pid=”137856″ post-content=”
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 marked the end of the bipolar era known as the Cold War. It ushered in a unipolar order dominated by Washington, which has now become unstable, leading many to speak of an emerging multipolar world order. 

Kanwal Sibal prefers to treat the idea of multipolarity with nuance, suggesting that the term may not be the most accurate way of describing current trends. In its traditional geographical sense, it describes centers of power and influence. Today, the Euro-Atlantic region dominated by the US is clearly a pole, but its power and influence are waning. China is not yet a pole, whereas Russia stands as a troubled pole. India is a “potential pole.” The rest of the world is in a state of flux.

The key to understanding this geopolitical shift is economics. “There cannot be effective multipolarity,” the former foreign secretary tells us, “unless something is done eventually about the hegemony of the dollar.” This hegemonic control allows the US control over the global financial system. Dedollarization, which includes decoupling the petroleum trade from the dollar, has begun and is accelerating. Sibal notes that “the United States has done great damage to itself by using the financial weapon—the dollar weapon—in the manner which they have, because countries are going to draw lessons from this.” Though it will take time, the hegemony of the dollar is under serious threat.

To understand today’s trend we need to rethink the vocabulary we use. Is “multipolar” the right term? Sibal prefers an alternative term for what is now emerging. It is a “polycentric world.” The underlying fact, noted by all lucid observers, is that “power has shifted remarkably—both political and economic and even military power—from the West to the East.”

Sibal disagrees with John Mearsheimer’s argument that multipolarity implies anarchy. Instead, he insists that multipolarity must be cooperative rather than antagonistic. This implies quite simply applying the terms of the UN Charter and respecting the principle of indivisible security. 

The former foreign secretary posits that the world has the opportunity to evolve beyond the geopolitical philosophy of deterrence. That mindset has produced a new nuclear arms race across the globe. The US can and must transform an economy built around the logic of the military-industrial complex. Technology can be designed to make human life better rather than to achieve competitive advantage.

Sibal also examines the role of culture and how cultures influence social and political practices. American culture promotes competition and conceives of international relations as fundamentally adversarial. Since World War II, the US has dominated the world stage. It is now time for an Eastern and specifically Indian tradition that embraces diversity and tolerance to provide a model for rethinking international relations. Perhaps humanity may learn the value of accommodation instead of domination.

The views expressed in this article/video are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
” post-content-short=”
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 marked the end of the bipolar era known as the Cold War. It ushered in a unipolar order dominated by Washington, which has now become unstable, leading many to speak of an emerging multipolar world order. 

Kanwal Sibal prefers to treat the idea of…” post_summery=”India’s former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal shares his reflections on the changing global balance of power. We are living at a time where the unipolar dominance of the US is coming into question with the Russia-Ukraine War increasing inflation and risks of nuclear conflict.” post-date=”Jul 22, 2023″ post-title=”FO° Talks: An Indian Foreign Secretary Makes Sense of Multipolarity” slug-data=”an-indian-foreign-secretary-makes-sense-of-multipolarity”>

FO° Talks: An Indian Foreign Secretary Makes Sense of Multipolarity




Claire Whitaker” post_date=”July 19, 2023 23:47″ pUrl=”https://www.fairobserver.com/video/fo-talks-rank-hypocrisy-do-the-global-rankings-misrepresent-india/” pid=”137697″ post-content=”
Interview with Professor Salvatore Babones

Professor Salvatore Babones is a man on a mission. He wants to restore India’s place in the global democratic rankings.

“I’m not Indian, I’m not Hindu, I’m not getting any money for this,” says the American academic, currently based in Australia. “It’s simply a matter of justice.”

In this interview with Fair Observer’s Claire Price, Babones outlines how and why he disagrees with the global rankings drawn up by Freedom House, the V-Dem Institute and the Economist Intelligence Unit, all of which have downgraded India under Modi’s premiership.

Claire Price: Last year, you became quite a hero in India after you criticized the democracy indices by Freedom House, the V-Dem Institute and the Economist Intelligence Unit. We’ll go through all of those in detail, but first, can you give us a general overview of your arguments? 

Salvatore Babones: There are three major democracy indices; they range from the most objective, the Rise of Democracy Institute rankings and Freedom House, to the most subjective, the Economist rankings. Ironically, it’s the most subjective rankings that rate India the best, which we should get into. The most objective, the V-Dem rankings, rate it the worst, but these rankings are very much driven by politics and by people’s own political views. 

Claire Price: Sweden’s Freedom Institute was bad for India last year, but frankly it’s even worse this year. India has plummeted in the Electoral Democracy Index from 93rd to 108th in the world. So that’s below countries like Tanzania, Bolivia, Mexico, Singapore and Nigeria. What’s your issue with their methodology? 

Salvatore Babones: There are very serious problems with V-Dem’s methodology. V-Dem is composed of five sub-indices of democracy; two are supposedly objective and three are subjective. The objective indicators are whether or not you have elections and whether or not you have universal suffrage. Virtually every country in the world gets a perfect score for those, including Vietnam, for example, which has a single-party communist party state. They get a perfect score because they’re purely looking at the constitution. So if the constitution says that officials are elected and if the constitution says that everyone can vote, then right away you get a perfect score. That means countries that are not democracies at all are starting with the same perfect score.

With a country like India, which is a bona fide democracy, the differentiation in V-Dem comes from its more subjective indicators. We’re asking experts to evaluate things that don’t necessarily have much to do with democracy. So for example, on free and fair elections, Hong Kong is rated to have freer and fairer elections than India. Why? Because when you look at the actual questions on V-Dem, the questions are things like, is there any violence at the polls? Well, yes, in India, every year there’s violence. At the polls in Hong Kong, no, it’s an orderly state. Are there any complaints to the electoral commission? In Hong Kong, no. Why would you complain? It’s a communist-party-run area. We have these same problems in Vietnam; Vietnam is really on a par with India for free and fair elections despite the fact that there’s only one party in Vietnam. What matters is that the formal process in Vietnam goes off without a hitch.

Now what we should be asking is, can you realistically unseat the government? Can you oppose the government? Could someone else win an election? Those are really what democracy is about. Those questions aren’t even in V-Dem. So, in effect, India is being downgraded for questions about process when autocratic regimes are scoring better. 

Claire Price: There are also some conclusions in their reports. For example, that India is one of the top ten autocratizing countries in the world. Isn’t it true that we are seeing this centralization of power under Modi to a greater extent now than we ever have in the past? 

Salvatore Babones: No, look, this is an artifact of what we call the “charisma of statistics.” V-Dem has set a series of score points on its indices. If you’re below this score, you’re an autocracy. They’re not doing a deep evaluation of India’s governance standards, they’re simply asking if your score is below, say, 0.6. If you’re below this point you become an autocracy. So they’re simply saying that India’s score on V-Dem has declined. Now they’re interpreting that in words without doing any actual analysis of governance procedures in India.

Claire Price: Some members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which is aligned to the Bharatiya Janata Party, have said that the Indian Administrative Service has too much power now. So isn’t that criticism coming from those who are in theory aligned with the government? 

Salvatore Babones: There’s a legitimate debate all around the world of presidential versus cabinet systems, of consensus government versus winner-take-all systems. We see that debate not just in India, but in lots of other countries as well. But that debate is not in the V-Dem rankings. There are no questions in V-Dem, as far as I’m aware, that ask, “Is government consensual?” or “Is government centralized?” because we accept that centralized and consensual systems are both forms of democracy. So yes, there may be these complaints in India.

On the other hand, other people may complain that the administration in India is inefficient and too decentralized. I mean, there are various points of view on whether administration should be centralized or decentralized, but that’s not something unique to India, and I stress that it is not the reason for the declining ranking on V-Dem. The declining ranking on V-Dem is driven entirely by declining scores on specific questions asked of Indian political scientists. And those scores, I think, in some cases are probably biased. That is, the people they’re asking have a bias against the current government. They see the Electoral Commission as being less independent because Modi won.  And to some extent, those questions are simply methodologically poorly constructed. Is a free and fair election really one in which the electoral roll is complete and there’s no violence in the polls? Or is a free and fair election one in which you can oppose the government? V-Dem says the former, I think the latter is a much more intuitive understanding. 

Price: There are complaints by those in India that there’s been a centralization of power, not just at the prime ministerial level but also at the state level, with Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal and M. K. Stalin in Tamil Nadu. Isn’t that a trend that people can see, not just something that’s been twisted in the statistics? 

Babones: Well, I think there is a trend in India towards more centralized government, but I don’t see that that’s in any way anti-democratic; democracy theory really says nothing on this and I don’t see that it’s necessarily even bad. India is a poor, developing country with a lack of administrative talent, and when things get brought into the Prime Minister’s office, they get done. When things are left to the broader bureaucracy, they often don’t get done, so it’s a recipe for making sure that promises made by politicians actually get enacted. Now I know many people will feel that their ideal of democracy is a decentralized democracy where everything is local—until their local authority makes a decision that they think is reprehensible or against human rights, and then they want things to come from above. 

Price: One word we haven’t mentioned so far is corruption. Transparency International actually ranks India 85th in the world for corruption. It says that the country schools remain stagnant, so it hasn’t worsened, but some of the mechanisms that could help rein in corruption are weakening. Do you dispute that finding? 

Babones: India is relatively clean from the standpoint of a developing country. It’s number 85th in the world despite being much poorer than 85th in the world, but it is relatively corrupt compared to Western Europe or North American countries. That’s just a fact. Corruption is not worsening by any account, and by most accounts—this is anecdotal, I can’t vouch for these in any kind of data-driven way—the Modi government has made anti-corruption a serious effort. The one thing we do know where corruption has been dramatically reduced is in the most important area—not licensing for 5G telecom or defense procurement—but in the most important thing of all, service delivery to the poor.

We know that moving to direct benefit transfers, which has been a key policy achievement of the Modi government, has cut out all the middlemen who were previously taking part of the cash that was supposed to be going to poor people. Poor people now receive their full benefits instead of having to face corruption at every stage. So that’s a big win against corruption.

What is the true level of corruption in India? I can’t tell you. Surveys can’t tell you. Transparency International almost entirely surveys large businesses. So they’re big business perceptions of corruption. We don’t even have any proper indices of ordinary people’s perceptions of corruption. We don’t know how corrupt India is. If I had to guess, I’d say they’re doing a good job for a country with $2,200 GDP per capita. 

Price: So, lack of data might explain, for example, why The Economist relies so much on experts for its findings. They, in 2022, described India as a flawed democracy and downgraded it two places to the 53rd position. What’s your view on their rankings? 

Babones: Flawed democracy, quote unquote. “Partly free,” to use the Freedom House terminology. I remind people, that’s not a value judgment. That’s a score judgment. If you fall below a certain score on your index, they have a range that is “democracy,” a range that is “flawed, democracy,” a range that is “non-democracy.” Same thing with Freedom House—a range that is “free,” a range that is “partly free,” a range that is “unfree.” That’s not a judgment that it’s suddenly become flawed, where it wasn’t flawed before. All democracies are flawed democracies. The Economist has now downgraded India for the last few years. That’s the opinion of their editorial team that India’s democracy is no longer as good as it was, but I strongly suspect that that opinion is shaped by the press coverage they see coming out of India, by the NGO reports they see coming out of India; it’s not driven by a deep expertise on India.

I remind everyone, The Economist is not ranking India. The Economist is ranking 170 countries. Freedom House, the same thing. V-Dem, the same thing. These are not India rankings. These are broad global rankings. The Economist, of all three of these, has the least country expertise embedded in its rankings. Ironically, it produces the best ranking for India. V-Dem, which relies almost solely, 85%, they say, on in-country experts, rates India the worst. So, use a grain of salt, take it whatever way you want, but it’s certainly not very meaningful to say that India has gone from being “free” to “partly free” or from being a “full democracy” to “flawed democracy.” All that represents is a declining score on their index.

Price: Now let’s look at the Freedom House report because that focuses particularly on rights. Freedom House downgraded India from “free” to “partially free” in 2022, and it maintains that view this year. It said in its report that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Hindu nationalist BJP have presided over discriminatory policies and a rise in persecution affecting the Muslim population. Are they wrong? 

Babones: Oh, I think they are wrong. I think we have some good data that they’re wrong. They are picking up on a number of policies that have been portrayed by NGOs as being anti-Muslim or being transgressions of rights. In fact, if you look at them carefully, it’s an NGO interpretation that is being spun from those policies.

The most clear example is the Citizenship Amendment Act, which is cited by Freedom House in its report. The CAA is an act that gives a pathway to citizenship for people who are members of persecuted religious minorities fleeing Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. These are officially Sharia-law, officially Muslim countries that have historically persecuted people of other religions. Now what the CAA says is that if you’re a Muslim refugee from Afghanistan, you are not automatically granted refugee status. You have to apply. If you’re Sikh, if you’re Hindu, because of your religion, you are considered a legitimate refugee. If you’re Muslim, you have to show persecution.

Now, I think that’s an unnecessarily strict construction of refugee status. I think there could have been more leeway in it. For example, Ahmadi Muslims are persecuted in Pakistan, even though Pakistan is an officially Muslim country. Allowing anyone who’s persecuted on behalf of religion would have probably been a more generous and better-drafted way to write the law. But instead of saying anyone’s personal on the basis of religion, the law actually lists a series of religions. That’s poor drafting, it’s not a perfect law, but it’s a very liberal law. 

Price: I think that’s one aspect, but if you look at what Human Rights Watch for example is saying about India, they talk about summary punishments. They talk about shops and homes being demolished, excessive force, public floggings. So these are actual things happening to Muslims in India. We’re not just talking about whether they accept Muslims from neighboring countries. 

Babones: These things have occurred as incidents in India, and they have been investigated and they’re subject to litigation in India. That’s the key point. We all respect New Zealand, we all think it’s a wonderful democracy and it’s rated in the top five of all the major democracy rankings. Well, if I told you that the largest mass killing of Muslims in the last five years occurred in New Zealand. “Oh, are you serious? More Muslims have been killed in terrorist attacks in New Zealand than in India in the last five years?” Oh, that’s right, the 2019 Christchurch massacre. We forget about it because we think it’s a good country. Now, if 200 Muslims have been killed in a terrorist attack in India for being Muslim, we would never hear the end of it because we have a preconception that India is anti-Muslim.

With New Zealand, we trust that the perpetrators are going to be tracked down, that these are going to be redressed and there is going to be, and there was, a national outpouring of sympathy for the community that was attacked. And really, that’s what we should be looking for in India. We can ask if any police person in India has ever transgressed the rights of Muslims. And the answer is yes. As the answer is yes, in England, in the United States, in New Zealand, in every country in the world. The question is what happens to the person who does it? So for example, you mentioned the case of the whipping of the Muslim man who was tied to a post and whipped by police; those police officers were promptly arrested. Now I don’t know the exact progress of the case, but they were arrested. They were dismissed; they’re facing legal action.

And that’s what we really need to look to. I mean, India is a country that has a GDP per capita on par with sub-Saharan Africa. We shouldn’t be expecting that India have a level of education and civility that is similar to a well-settled country with 30 times its GDP per capita. So the question for India is not, “Do things happen that are wrong?” They happen in New Zealand, they happen in the UK. These things happen everywhere. The question is, “In a robust, well-institutionalized democracy, does the machinery of government respond appropriately?” And I think in India the answer is largely, and I stress “largely,” yes. 

Price: Tell me why you think these rankings matter.

Babones: They matter for many reasons. First, they matter because they matter for international affairs. Narendra Modi just visited the United States. There is a willingness in the United States to work with India because of the perception that it is a growing economy and an important country, but the American establishment is, in effect, holding its nose when it works with India. All of the statements, they’re all along the lines of, “Well, we know India has problems, but we want to work with them anyway,” instead of saying, “Actually, these accounts of problems in India are wildly exaggerated.” We saw Barack Obama recently in a very controversial interview in which he said that India had to address these problems, or it might soon face a second partition. Now this affects how the United States works with India, whether it works with India as a true partner or simply as a customer, someone who might buy defense equipment. It affects how much India pays for its international bonds, right?

Price: So there are real-world effects? 

Babones: Bonds are all benchmarked to the sovereign bond rate, and the sovereign bond rate for India is partly benchmarked to government standards. Those government standards in large part come from the V-Dem survey, which then enter into the World Bank and United States Agency for International Development governance standards. So there are indirect but real effects. There’s just also the matter of simple justice. I mean, I’m an academic. I’m not a spokesperson for India. 

Price: You say you’re not a spokesperson for India, but you make no secret of your support for India on Twitter. You’re wearing a “Make India Great Again” hat and you’re raising money for an Indian think tank. 

Babones: Look, any think tank has to raise money and that’s just a fact of life. Any reporting organization has to earn money. We have to earn money to do things. Now that money is not going to me, I must stress everything I’ve done for the Indian Century Roundtable has been pro bono. My “Make India Great Again” hat is a joke. I’m very much a humorist on Twitter, and in fact I write a humor column for an Australian journal. But that is not in my academic writing. 

Price: Are you worried about your perceived objectivity? You met Modi, for example, last month and you exchanged some comments on Twitter, which showed you were very proud to have met him. 

Babones: Well, of course I am. I think that’s a perfectly normal human being to do. Look, I am not an arbiter. I’m not a judge. I’m not a journalist. I’m a person and an academic who’s writing what he believes, and I also have a personal life. Now, if I had a responsibility to defend India, I would probably be much more guarded about things I say personally on Twitter. I am not the guardian of India. I’m not the defender of India. I’m an academic who has a viewpoint. You can take my viewpoint or leave it. But the point is what I’m bringing to the table is factual data about India.

We haven’t got into any of those facts today in this interview. I can give you lots of survey data about India. I can give you lots of factual data about India. Now, whether or not people like me or like what hat I wear, the factual data are the factual data. And I get people, almost always, coming back with ad hominem attacks. If I write something that is exculpatory about Narendra Modi’s India, someone will say “Oh, he’s a Trump supporter.” Well, first of all, whether or not I am a Trump supporter (and I’ve never taken any public position on that) is irrelevant about whether the facts about India are true or not. I mean, the data on journalist deaths are the same data whatever you think of me personally. The data we have on attitudes of Muslims in India, that is Muslims’ self-reported experiences of discrimination in India are the same. I’d like to talk about the data, not so much about myself. 

Price: Tell us more about what your think tank is aiming to achieve.

Babones: Well, the Indian Century Roundtable is something I’ve tried to get started up in Australia. I should stress it’s an Australian think tank and our goal is to present a factual narrative about India. Our launch report was a report about the V-Dem rankings, and again, it’s not a report that just complains that the V-Dem rankings are unfair to India. It’s a technical analysis of V-Dem. My own background is as a social statistician. I teach our statistics curriculum at the University of Sydney, and my major academic work is about methods for quantitative macro-comparative research, which is a book about statistics used for international comparison. So this is exactly my own area of academic expertise.

We’re also looking to commission papers on other controversial issues in India, just to try to get a factual account. When I commission those papers, we go to experts that have knowledge on the subject. We’re not trying to give a policy recommendation for India. Instead, we’re simply trying to get a factual account of India.

Our next paper will be on the national identification number system. Right now if you go for information in the West, all you can get is either glorifying articles from the business press about how wonderful it is that everyone has a bank account or condemnatory articles from the NGO press saying that this is a system for cataloging people to prime them for repression. Well, we put together a factual account. “How does the system actually work?”

We’re commissioning a paper on the collegiate system for appointing judges. India has a very distinctive system. The closest parallel is Israel, pre-Netanyahu reforms, for appointing judges. Judges essentially appoint themselves in India’s judiciary. Well, does that ensure judicial independence, or is that a recipe for nepotism? We’ve commissioned a report from a senior barrister, an Australian barrister, to just take an objective look at the system.

I have no position on these things. I’m not Indian. I’m not Hindu. I’m not getting any money from this. I’m doing this because I’m looking at the data and saying the data are completely at odds with the narrative. Then when you get deeper into the narrative, we see highly political people who are pushing the narrative. Then reporters, and forgive me, it’s not nice to criticize the fourth estate, but reporters instead of going to the data, just repeat, via quote, “This NGO person said this, this NGO person said that,” without asking \hard questions of them. Wait a minute, why are you saying that? Is that true?

The simple thing that I keep going back to, is the Committee to Protect Journalists, which tells everyone that journalists are in danger in India because more journalists are killed in India over time than in any other country outside China. You think, “Oh, that’s terrible.” Well, no reporter, as far as I could tell, has ever asked the Committee to Protect Journalists if they have adjusted for population size. It doesn’t take a social statistician, who writes books on statistics, to just ask that simple question. Yes, more people have black hair in India than in India than any country outside of China. Tell me what the stats are. I’d like to see the fourth estate not only holding me to account—I’m happy with that—but holding NGOs to account, holding politicians to account, going to the data. That’s what the Indian Century Roundtable is all about. It’s all about going to the data.

Price: Thank you so much, Professor. I think we’ll have to leave it there.

Fair Observer is a platform for citizen journalism with over two and a half thousand contributors from over 90 different countries. And we would love you to join the conversation. So if today’s discussion has prompted any thoughts, do get in touch. You can follow us on social media, you can write for us and you can sign up for our weekly newsletter. Thanks very much.

Thank you.

Babones: Thank you.

The views expressed in this article/video are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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Interview with Professor Salvatore Babones

Professor Salvatore Babones is a man on a mission. He wants to restore India’s place in the global democratic rankings.

“I’m not Indian, I’m not Hindu, I’m not getting any money for this,” says the American academic, currently based in…” post_summery=”Global democracy rankings, like The Economist Democracy Index, have registered India as sliding away from democracy under Prime Minister Modi’s administration. Salvatore Babones, an American scholar, contests these results. When we look at the situation on the ground and on relevant data, not statistical abstractions, Indian democracy appears far healthier.” post-date=”Jul 19, 2023″ post-title=”FO° Talks: Rank Hypocrisy: Do Global Rankings Misrepresent India?” slug-data=”fo-talks-rank-hypocrisy-do-the-global-rankings-misrepresent-india”>

FO° Talks: Rank Hypocrisy: Do Global Rankings Misrepresent India?






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