Fixing Democracy’s Dysfunctions


For better or for worse, democracy has been canvassed by a majority of countries and the UN as the preferred political system for any country. And that includes countries whose political analysts, lay observers, NGOs other interested parties – in fact, practically everybody — have been severely critical of the dysfunctions and lacunae in their own version of democracy. It will be recalled that Winston Churchill, who was the UK’s Prime Minister during the Second World War, is often quoted as saying that democracy is the least bad of the systems of government that we have. He should know – that there is an undercurrent of bad in a democracy – because it was during his watch that took place the Bengal famine that killed nearly 2 million. Because their produce and rations were diverted to feed British troops fighting World War II.

That also – stealing their due from a people at the cost of their lives – was democracy, Churchill version.

A couple of years into Trump’s mandate beginning 2016, articles started appearing in the American media about the failures of democracy in the US. Some headlines went as far as to say the democracy is broken in America. As evidence were cited, amongst others, nepotism and cronyism in appointments to positions at the White House, interference in and pressuring of institutions such as the CIA and the CDC (Centres for Disease Control), bias in nominations to the Supreme Court, heavy-handedness in taking policy decisions without prior consultations or discussions in Congress.

Basically it boiled down to a weakening of institutions by targeting key people, forcing the most vulnerable ones out, resulting in suits and countersuits. Not only did all this sour the working atmosphere – if one can call it so – but it exposed the polity as one being at the mercy of a whimsical leader. There was uncertainty and unpredictability, and even reversal of decisions taken earlier.

If there is one redeeming factor that stood out, it was no doubt the presence of a no-nonsense Speaker in the House of Representatives, and the civility with which business was conducted there. This did not prevent fierce adversarial debating and taking of positions on either side of the House. It also meant that several Republicans took positions that were contrary to their Leader’s, President Trump, and that was part of the democratic game.

This stand came to a peak after the attack on Capitol Hill, called the citadel of American democracy, after incitation by Trump of his supporters who invaded (some armed to the teeth) the sacrosanct precincts of the House, and created mayhem, assaulting wildly, shouting and going on rampage.

Du jamais vu in America which never hesitates to vaunt the merits of democracy, and hauls up countries it thinks fall short of the required criteria.

Coming as it did but a few days before one of the most awaited events in America’s national calendar – the installation of a new President -, it was deemed a step too far in the attempt to derail America and its institutions. A floundering leader – despite some positives such as countering the Chinese behemoth, brokering the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and a few Arab countries, making NATO partners pay their dues to continue benefiting from the American umbrella – tried a desperate, desperado-type last-ditch effort to save himself.

In vain. Even some of his party members voted to impeach him, a vote won by a large majority.

Whether that has fixed democracy’s dysfunctions in America or not is another call. But at least a beginning has been made to stop the slide, and by no less than the members of the House across partisan lines.

It is an option that our own parliamentarians could perhaps start working on, instead of acquiescing to every dysfunction that 2020 has been witness to. Therein lies our hope, albeit a forlorn one.

* Published in print edition on 22 January 2021

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