Salvatore Babones, a sociologist, says ranking bodies reflect the biased views of the India experts who form their panels.


NEW DELHI: Professor Salvatore Babones, a sociologist, teaches political economy of the Indo-Pacific region at the University of Sydney, Australia. Babones, who was in India recently, has written on issues faced by India and his book, “The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts” was named “Best on Politics 2018” by the Wall Street Journal. During his recent visit to India, Babones shared his views on the multiple issues that impact India’s perception at the global level. He spoke exclusively to The Sunday Guardian on what, in his view, has changed in India in the last few years. Excerpts:
Q: You have said, “India’s intellectual class in its public persona is anti-India. In their hearts, I am sure, they are very proud patriots. But when they go out in the public arena to talk about India, they are certainly not highlighting India’s accomplishments.” Assuming that what you say is true, what is the reason behind this stance? Are the reasons personal, professional, ideological, or political?
A: Most intellectuals (like most other people) tend to be self-indulgent. We all tend to think that what we think is not only right, but also objective. But unlike other people, intellectuals have a professional responsibility to work systematically toward an objective analysis of the world. What I see in writing on Indian democracy is that many intellectuals seem to allow their personal political preferences to influence their (supposedly) objective analyses. They are, in effect, allowing their aversion to the Modi/BJP government to bias their evaluations of Indian democracy.
Q: Is this “criticism”, which you believe is mostly baseless, a new phenomenon? Does it have to do with the coming of the BJP to power? Was this “baseless criticism” not common before 2014?
A: Before 2014 (indeed, almost up until 2019), India was widely considered a model democracy. It received high rankings from international organisations, on a par with Western European countries. Yet in today’s rankings, we see facts from before 2014 (for example, the use of the UAPA against the CPI-M) being used to justify not only a low ranking, but a decline in rankings in the Modi era.
Q: Will it be right to say that the subject, the content of the criticism in many cases is valid, but since it is done by a few individuals, groups who have a “coloured” past and a “slant”, hence even a genuine criticism loses its acceptability?
A: The content of most of the criticisms cited in the rankings are absolutely invalid. I’ve presented the facts of this in my paper. I do believe that the members of the evaluation panels behind the rankings are likely biased, but the editors at the ranking organisations have a responsibility to be on their guard for such biases, not to reinforce them.
Q: Will you agree that criticism, if done in earnest and with a lack of malice, helps the organisation, and the entity to grow and evolve? How can you, me, or the reader say and judge that a particular line of criticism is valid, but the other line of the same is not? Will this judgment on our part too not be flawed as it will be based on our own biases?
A: Yes, of course. I have no objection to criticism. But critics have a responsibility to be truthful. If you read my paper, you will find many examples documented of purely mendacious criticism.
Q: There is a thought among a section in India that most of the individuals and groups that are “right-leaning” and “pro-BJP”, are yet to reach a level of sophistication, finesse, attain mastery over the subjects and become adept at how they put across their views on the international arena to make their opinions make a lasting impression. And this “weakness”, if I can call it, leads to their voice being suppressed by what you and others call the existing “Intellectual class” who are seen as anti-BJP. Would you agree with this understanding?
A: Yes, I think this is broadly true—though with many individual exceptions.
Q: You have degrees in Sociology and you have a Master’s in Mathematical Sciences and you write on multiple issues that are not strictly related to these two subjects. The University of Sydney says your expertise lies in the political economy in the Indo-Pacific. How would you describe yourself?
A: I am a political sociologist (not a political scientist) who takes a quantitative cross-national approach to studying global issues. For the first 15 years of my career, I focused on development. For the last five years, I have focused on democracy. With apologies, online short bios are often cursory and out of date!
Q: You believe that certain international think tanks and ranking organisations have an agenda of belittling India and pulling it down. These steps and actions are not new and to be honest, every country faces such challenges. My question is who in your view, as an institution/group, is working on bringing down India, apart from the usual suspects? Who is influencing these think tanks and organisations that give ranking? Do Indian policymakers need to be wary of the “Westerns” in the same measure as they are wary of some of India’s neighbours?
A: I don’t think the ranking organisations are trying to demonize India. They accurately reflect the biased views of the India experts who form their expert panels. The root problem is the expert bias, which is then compounded by insufficiently sceptical editing on behalf of the ranking organisations.
Q: If you had to list India’s top three challenges, what would they be?
A: I assume you mean from a democracy standpoint. In terms of democracy, India’s biggest problem is that Lok Sabha seats have not been reapportioned since 1971. India thus fails the basic test of equal representation. The second problem is the lack of a uniform civil code. India thus fails the basic test of equal representation. The third problem seems to be (and here I am less confident, because the issues are less clear) the apparent social exclusion of some Indian Muslims.
Q: Lastly, what is the fundamental change, as an international observer, that you see vis-à-vis India in 2012 and India in 2022?
A: The clear change is the rise of a muscular new India, confident of its voice and zealous in its commitment to democracy.