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Informed Perspectives vs. Popular Perceptions: Or is it just the case of ordinary citizens knowing better?

There has been a lot of debate lately on global democracy rankings (and associated ratings) and their perspective on India. Of particular interest is the analysis by noted Australia based scholar Professor Salvatore Babones that confirms that such ratings are in fact based on perspectives of a small group of experts in each country who are engaged to provide inputs to the agencies publishing such comparative assessments on subjective topics such as state of democracy in a country.

It follows that if this small sample of experts tend to have similar ideological leanings and political bias, this would lead to a prejudiced and incorrect assessment for that country’s specific situation. Essentially, Babones argues that India’s intellectual class, especially the ones hailing from social sciences and humanities backgrounds, and well connected to international academia, have a strong bias against the current government, and since they are the ones who are typically engaged by international agencies for such assessments, their prejudices results in India’s poor ratings by such agencies, and is therefore not reflective of objective reality.

It needs to be underlined that presence of such strong biases, especially in the social sciences and humanities are well documented (click for article here) by data. But the point of this article is not to go over the ground that Professor Babones has covered, but look at the counter examples, i.e., studies and opinion polls that are based on large-sample interaction with the general population, i.e., the actual citizens which would include different age, gender, profession, income-group, social class and ethnic backgrounds, i.e., what is called a representative sample.

Of special interest is a very interesting study conducted by Morning Consult, a US based firm specializing in high-frequency surveys and data analytics. The recently released results (see here) based on surveys of large representative samples in 22 of the world’s major democracies investigating whether their citizens believe that their country is on the right track, and by definition if they have confidence in their top political leadership.

India emerges as a clear outlier, with 74% of the Indian respondents, an overwhelming 3/4th majority indicating that their country is on the right track. The next most positive result comes from Switzerland at 58% and Mexico at 57%. Most of the western democracies have a largely negative outlook with a majority of their citizens indicating that their country seems to be on the wrong track. From close to 83% in UK, to 77% in France, 72% in the US and 71% in Germany.

The leadership approval ratings published by Morning Consult (see here) underline an equally overwhelming vote of confidence for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership. A whopping 77% of Indian respondents put their seal of approval on Mr. Modi making him by far the most popular leader in the major democracies worldwide. It needs to be noted that only 4 of the 22 democratically elected heads of government have approval ratings of more than 50%. Also, among the top 5 most popular leaders, three have been relatively recently elected (Ignazio Cassis in Switzerland, Giorgia Meloni in Italy, and Anthony Albanese in Australia) and therefore can be said to be enjoying their ‘honeymoon’ period with the electorate.

Only President Obrador in Mexico, the second most approved leader in the list, has been in power for some-time, and like Mr. Modi, was responsible for steering his country during the height of the pandemic. Put in perspective, Mr. Modi, in power since 2014 is the one of the longest-serving heads of government in the list of 22, and therefore should have been facing the maximum headwind of anti-incumbency. In that context, his overwhelming popularity stands out as a testimonial to his performance, especially during unprecedentedly difficult times during the pandemic.

One last interesting observation is that India is the only country in the list where a majority of the people continued to exude confidence in their government all through the pandemic period, the lowest extent of such confidence being around 54% during the height of the second wave of the pandemic in India. Except for this brief period during this height of the second wave in India, i.e., between April to August of 2021, the extent of support was always more than 65% or roughly 2/3rd of the respondents excluding confidence in the sense of direction of their country.

Some so-called experts and academics might argue that such large sample responses from general (i.e., non-expert) common citizens are essentially driven by perceptions, as opposed to more informed perspectives that experts bring to the table. This is so since such perspectives, however biased, are still based on deeper understanding and study by experts, and thus are better than less informed perceptions of the common citizen. The underlying assumption here is that the common citizen is subject to manipulation by social and other media, and is an easy prey to what is referred to derisively as the ‘WhatsApp university’, i.e., fake news or dished up facts.

This is an elitist view of the world that is for, of, and by the elite. To argue that large cohorts of adult citizens-which includes professionals, business people, blue-collar workers, teachers, homemakers, and students are incapable of forming an informed view of the world around them represents a sense of superiority and entitlement that does not bode well for truly liberal foundations in a society.

To claim that all of these men and women, coming into contact with issues of governance that impact their day to day lives and livelihoods will simply discount their real lived experience as workers, traders, consumers, caregivers etc. and get duped by fake news or propaganda in my mind represents a serious undermining of genuine public opinion. Making this assumption is actually a big-blow to the very ideal of electoral democracy. The basic assumption of an electoral democracy is that large enough numbers of people are able to make informed choices in their best interest and therefore choose the government that is best for them.

In fact, accusations of cognitive incoherence can actually be ascribed to the views of a limited number of experts, especially academics who often have very limited interaction with the real world, and therefore have a largely theoretical worldview. I am saying this with due respect to many academics who deep dive into hands-on ground-level issues and do high quality applied research. But in my experience, such hands-on experts have increasingly become somewhat of a minority in social science and humanities disciplines world-wide.

It therefore stands to reason that such a large-sample survey of the general citizenry represents lived experience of governance and development, and it is indeed a rich and nuanced perspective and not simply misinformed perception. That being the case, the stellar performance of Shri Narendra Modi, and his government in this survey (and many similar such surveys), borne out by equally solid electoral performance, represents the actual picture of the situation in India-that of a country on the move with full confidence in its democratically elected leadership. And a standout among the comity of major democracies in terms of optimism about its future prospects and general sense of direction.

 (The author is Senior Research Fellow at SPMRF and is an Economic Policy, Trade and Logistics Expert. Views expressed are his own)