Prof. Salvatore Babones no longer needs an introduction to Indian American audiences unless one lives under a rock, which alas, we regret to say that indeed many in our community do! But those who do read, and watch, and follow social media, know that Prof. Babones has more than 55,000 followers on Twitter, and the majority of them, we believe, are Indian. He was invited by India Today and was interviewed by the infamous Rajdeep Sardesai at their conclave in Mumbai in November. In the interview with Sardesai, Prof. Babones posited, with data and carefully crafted arguments, that India was wrongly ranked low in democracy and freedom rankings by international agencies, and that those international agencies relied on a small, anonymous set of Indian intellectuals for arriving at such false and provocative conclusions. Prof. Babones therefore argued correctly that it was Indian intellectuals who were to blame for the unjustifiable rankings.
After his brief stay in India in November, Prof. Babones has been interviewed by a variety of people – from big mainstream media journalists to the snide, cocky, condescending, and disdainful of India’s “Khan Market Gang” members as well as journalists from the very many small, marginalized, but feisty new media platforms who have found in Prof. Babones not only a willing interlocutor but a generous one – generous with his time, with his willingness to share details of his academic background, his training in and use of quantitative methodologies, the books on India he is reading and which he has read over the past three years since he took interest in India rankings, and so on.
Dr. Babones’ article, “Indian Democracy at 75: Who are the Barbarians at the Gate?”, published in the Quadrant journal, was what initially got Indian readers excited about this “new” scholar who was clearly going against the tide of the “influential” scholarship on India – both Indian and by the “South Asia experts” abroad. Dr. Babones argued in that piece that India was not just wrongly characterized but that India indeed was an extraordinarily successful democracy.
Salvatore Babones is a serious scholar, articulate in his explanations which he offers without filling it with jargon, name-dropping, or political posturing. He earned his PhD from the prestigious Johns Hopkins University, and following a five-year stint at the University of Pittsburgh, he moved to the University of Sydney, in Australia, and has taught and done research there since 2008 as an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. He is a quantitative comparative sociologist, whose research now is focused on the “political sociology of democracy”. India, the largest democracy in the world, therefore, is now his focus for his scholarly inquiries. He is the author or co-author of about eight books, and he has edited another half a dozen more. His book, “The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts,” published in 2018, got the left/progressive dominated higher education cabals breaking out in hives, and led to some coordinated campaigns by American and international scholars who sought to paint him as obfuscator and an apologist for Trump. “Look, do I think that the Trump presidency was an overall positive influence on American democracy and political dynamics? Yes. Does that mean I am a supporter of Trump? No,” he told us.
Given that these days the “woke” rule with an iron fist and a closed mind on what constitutes free speech, what it means to be a liberal and a progressive, who is “good” and who is “bad”, what kinds of dangerous social engineering experiments should be carried out to bring “diversity, equity, and inclusion”, what kinds of crimes committed by whom should be recorded or ignored, whose habits of profligacy, criminality, greed, lust, envy, wrath and sloth should be cleaned from record books and whose should be highlighted, and who should be foisted into offices of influence, whether they merit or not, it is dangerous to one’s career if not one’s life to go against the tide. Activism in academics as in journalism is the calling of the day, and we have therefore literally an army of academics and journalists, both Indian and foreign, snapping at the heels of India, of Hindus, and characterizing the Government led by Narendra Modi as “fascist,” “authoritarian,” “nationalist,” “Hindu majoritarian,” and Hindus as “casteist,” “nationalists,” “anti-Muslim,” “patriarchal,” and so on. Ignored are the wanton provocations of Islamists, Christian fundamentalists, Khalistani extremists, and the crimes and corruption of those who call themselves “progressive” and “secular”.
Dr. Babones has said as much as he can in the variety of articles he has written and the interviews he has given about the lack of data and support in arriving at the false conclusions about Indian democracy and freedom. Veering therefore from the ground already much trod, we had a wide-ranging conversation with him on January 6, 2023, seeking to cover some new ground – both on matters Indian as well as international.
Speaking to us, he said that the book on India he is working on since 2019 began from a sabbatical from his university and a year’s worth of weekly opinion columns he wrote for Foreign Policy magazine. Since he is a comparative sociologist, he had studied China and Eastern Europe, and that India was an obvious choice for his next area of study. He said the India Century Roundtable that he has started with Pranav Aggarwal as the Associate Director, will expand his investigation of Indian social, political, and economic indicators.
Asked about his reasons for moving from the US to Australia, he said that he was up for tenure at the University of Pittsburgh and found that it was an opportune time to look for potential academic positions elsewhere, and how the prestigious University of Sydney offered both a sunnier and a more welcome locale. On matters whether the Australian academic scene in the humanities and social sciences is different from that in Western Europe and in the US – he said that it is no different and that the social sciences and humanities arenas have become political battlefields and minefields, and that most of the PhDs and graduate students emerging out of these programs find that there are no jobs for them.
Regarding the argument he has made in the latest piece in The Quadrant that in a well-institutionalized democracy, “the tyranny of the minority won’t last forever,” and that it is “up to us to hasten its demise, and return society to a more humane, more liberal form of liberalism” – he said it is a required antidote to the poisoning of the political well and social wellbeing. While in the past the “minority” was made up of the few educated, landed white patriarchs, what is happening now is the gathering and wielding of power by forces that do not reflect the will of the people, and the churning in politics should therefore be welcome so that people’s voices are heard.
As to his popularity on social media, and the unassailable data he offers in support of his argument or which he uses to challenge the conclusions of other experts, and how he has become the target of India’s left/liberal establishment, he said that is why he has stopped writing for academic journals that are hijacked and commandeered by political activists.
More of Prof. Salvatore Babones answers to questions can be viewed at Indiafacts.Org.In.
Professor Ramesh Rao is the founder of Indiafacts.org.