D.C. and Delhi: Dysfunctional Democracies?

Has the United States, not unlike India, reached a new normal where legislative blockage is more important than addressing pending needs?

When I was in India recently, the political landscape seemed oddly familiar. Whether inside Washington’s Beltway or New Delhi’s Ring Road, the political countrysides bore remarkable similarities. In India and the United States, charismatic, forceful national leaders were trying to move forward with programs for economic change. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Modi, not unlike President Obama, had run squarely into a large dose of legislative politics as usual. What is it about these two important democracies that seems to produce dysfunction in law making?

In an Indian version of “those living in glass houses throwing stones,” the opposition in the Indian legislature had taken up the hue and cry of alleged corruption. In the Rajya Sabha (upper house), where the Opposition holds a significant majority, the Opposition simply used its numbers to block consideration of legislation. This was particularly ironic in regard to key legislation for creating a single market in India, the Goods and Services Tax bill. The G&ST measure had been drafted and supported by the Opposition when it was in power only a little over a year ago. In the Lok Sabha (lower house), where the Opposition is in a distinct minority, it simply stormed the well of the house and, with a continuous show of placards and shouting, refused to allow business to proceed.

The results: No legislation and a complete washout of the aptly named Monsoon Session. The justification: The other guys are crooks, and they did it to us when they were in opposition (besides, this may be working politically).

So what did the prime minister do in response to the washout? As his American counterpart often does, he gave a speech—a very long (one and a half hours) Independence Day speech filled with facts and figures to show that the Opposition was wrong. And the reaction? Those who support the government thought it was terrific, while supporters of the Opposition thought it was terrible—lacking in substance and/or inspiration.

Much of the press reacted to the parliamentary washout in a very American way, too. Pundits criticized the government for not getting its key legislative goals enacted. Opposition predictions of the inability to provide meaningful change became a self-fulfilling prophecy that the media echoed in erudite critiques about the shine being off Modi’s leadership.

Also familiar was the political reaction outside New Delhi. Leaders in the population centers and state capitals I visited—Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Kolkata and Mumbai—had their own bread to bake. Attention was mostly centered on state efforts to promote prosperity and attend to their own political worries. In many ways, the legislative paralysis in New Delhi seemed to be happening in a foreign land. The deadlock was regrettable, but not a reason for action. In terms of everyday life, the states and the Center were worlds apart.

However, in all humility, I had to admit that India at least had a budget. Transportation and other infrastructure measures were going forward. This was more than I could say for my own country. Almost no key funding legislation proposed by the president was moving and the American legislature was completely engrossed in trying to torpedo his single most important foreign-policy initiative—the Iran nuclear deal. And legislative paralysis seemed to be trickling down to the American states. In my home state of Virginia, a legislative session called to fix the unconstitutionality of redistricting laws had descended into a fight about a judge and nothing had gotten done.

Perhaps, it was always this way. After all, it was India’s old nemesis Winston Churchill who said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” But what worries me most about my three weeks of close observation of Indian democracy is that it is so like our own at the moment. Have we reached a new normal where blockage is more important than addressing pending needs? Are we so divided that we cannot act even on items we agree need to be done?

India and the United States are the two largest (and some would say potentially the greatest) democracies in the world. Our values are aligned and so are many of our interests. However, if we have executive/legislative systems that produce little or nothing, will that not ultimately impact our abilities to cooperate on the great strategic issues of our time? To keep growing, a modern economy needs a continuously updated set of laws, including a national budget. Ultimately, robust economies are foundations of national greatness and our ability to cooperate strategically. In democracies, updated laws are not achieved by prime ministers or presidents alone, but require the participation of functioning legislatures. In the meantime, don’t blame the heads of governments if legislatures can’t get their acts together.

Raymond E. Vickery Jr. is a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center; Of Counsel at Hogan Lovells; Senior Advisor at Albright Stonebridge; and a former Assistant Secretary of Commerce, Trade Development, in the Clinton Administration.