The Failures and Chaos of Democracy

British politician Winston Churchill is cited as saying that democracy is the least bad of systems of government. It would be recalled that despite leading Britain to victory over the Germans in World War Two, he lost in the subsequent general election, which brought Clement Attlee to power as the prime minister.

This was no doubt a living proof of the soundness of the basic premise of democracy, that power flows from the people and it is they who give the mandate to a political party to govern, and also remove it if need be through the democratic process.

However, this power is exerted and ‘felt’ only once every five years in most democracies where free and fair elections are held at predictable or set (the US) dates. In between, that is when the elected government is in place, how it exercises this power varies from country to country, and in all democracies – even the mature ones – there are examples of abuse of that power. The same freedom that brings into place a new government and empowers it to govern is subsequently evoked by the same elected government to ‘rule’ with iron hands (using excessive force through established legal structures and the policing or enforcement mechanisms) rather than govern with velvet gloves.

There is no denying that a firm hand is required in many situations but “‘twixt the cup and the lip there’s many a slip”: we refer to the thin line that separates just use of power from violence in the extreme – as we have seen in the riots in the town of Ferguson in the US – and aggressiveness amounting to brutality as we have witnessed in the manner of handling of political opponents in this country after the honeymoon period of election is over.

Perhaps that is what Churchill meant, and experienced? While we may be enchanted by the worn definition of democracy as ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ we can see from what precedes that there are problems regarding the by and the for. As regards the by, that is the elected representatives and leaders, there is increasingly mounting and strident criticism of the their quality by several noted analysts.

For example, Joergen Oerstroem Moeller who is a visiting senior research fellow with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, and adjunct professor with the Singapore Management University and Copenhagen Business School evokes the ‘possibility of people being disillusioned with democracy’. He comments that ‘demagogues and populists win elections because they flatter and humour the multitude of people not able or willing to see through the maze. But the danger is, they could be ineffective leaders as they pander to the populace, or worse, are closet dictators who eventually subvert the democratic system for their own interests.’

He cites the examples of Iraq, which ‘bid farewell to dictator Saddam Hussein, only to have elected former prime minister Nouri Maliki, who was accused of leading a divisive, sectarian government that has fuelled the violence that has led to parts of the country being captured by militant group Islamic State’ and Thailand, ‘embroiled in political protests, leading to the ouster of its prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, and subsequently a military coup.’ He goes on to add that ‘even more established democracies are facing problems. In some countries (e.g. France and Britain) protest parties — often espousing radical views that smack of fascism, racism or communism — recently won about a quarter of the seats in the European Parliament.’

He even referred to the United States, where ‘the system has bred gridlock that resulted in a government shutdown last October (2013) after Republicans and Democrats could not agree on a spending plan for the fiscal year.’ A similar gridlock has currently gripped the Indian Parliament. India is held up as an example of the largest democracy in the world, and yet what is happening in its Lok Sabha during the current ‘monsoon session’ is a shame to the nation, with the Congress Party determined to obstruct the work of government which needs to pass some crucial bills, such as the Land Bill and the General Sales Tax Bill, without which the country will continue to be grounded in inertia that will delay if not altogether derail its development.

All this is being done in the name of the freedom that democracy confers – in this case, to create such a hullaballo that it continuously disrupts the proper functioning of the Lok Sabha, preventing informed debates from taking place, being replaced by the cacophony of the mediocres represented by the Congress and its allies in the opposition. And this shows up what Joergen Oerstroem Moeller calls ‘the weakness of democracy’, which is ‘the temptation to follow the demagogues and populists, who tell voters what they want to hear.’

At a time when the country is facing repeated intrusions across the border with Pakistan with terrorists infiltrating into Kashmir, and the Afghan President Ghani openly finger-pointing Pakistan for the latest attack in Kabul, one would have thought that a keen sense of patriotism would have rallied both government and Opposition in India to seriously debate the issue of cross-border terrorism and take a united stand for the sake of the country’s security. Instead what the world is witnessing is not the fine example of the largest democracy in action, but of the chaos of democracy.

This makes one wonder, therefore, whether it is time to rethink, or at least to revisit democracy.


  • Published in print edition on 14 August 2015

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