The Art of Democracy

Samia Altaf 

The furor over the display of nudes at the National Art Gallery in Islamabad made me think of the Partition. Both situations represent the challenge of reconciling different points of views without conflict. And both are complicated by the fact that we desire to live in a democratic society.

In the case of the Partition we failed. It was perhaps the most tragic failure of our times – a million people lost their lives and over ten million lost their homes. The conflict at the National Art Gallery is the same type of problem in principle but the stakes are much smaller and we can think about how to resolve the dilemma without losing control of our emotions. Hopefully we can draw some macro conclusions from a micro situation.

The first thing to note is that democratic governance is not equivalent to majoritarian rule. The views of a majority do not prevail unconditionally and in every circumstance. The right of every citizen has to be respected and protected as long as it is within the law. Even a law-abiding minority of one is important in a democracy.

So, the fact that the majority of people would not like the display of nudes is not sufficient argument to remove them from the gallery. At the same time, it is important to recognize that the majority does find nudes embarrassing and that their display is a deterrent to people taking their families to the exhibitions. It is also not enough to argue on the other side that nudes are acceptable in other countries. We have to find a solution in the context of our own cultural preferences.

It was encouraging to read in the news reports that many of the protesters were comfortable with a display of nudes in a private gallery but not in a public one. This provides a starting point for a solution. Why can’t we have a private section in the National Art Gallery where entry is limited to those who can choose with full knowledge of the nature of the contents?

This is not something unfamiliar. This kind of rating is routinely applied in the movie industry where films are categorized in accordance with the explicitness of the content. It is then up to the viewer to make the choice of viewing or not viewing the film.

The bottom line is that most of the time we can find rules to accommodate the rights and sensitivities of all citizens without having to resort to extreme authoritarian solutions.

And this brings us back to the Partition where our leaders failed to find the rules that would have allowed different groups to coexist in a democracy without fear of domination. The electoral rule of a single representative in a geographical constituency with a first-past-the-post system aroused concerns of majoritarian domination. The British attempted to resolve this with a system of separate electorates along religious lines that only succeeded in hardening the communal divide.

There were alternative rules available to consider. For example, till 1994 the electoral system used for the Lower House in Japan combined multi-member districts with a single non-transferable vote. The system had features distinguishing it from both plurality and proportional systems. Members were chosen from electoral districts having from two to six seats depending on the population of the district. In a four-member district, for example, the top four vote-getters were elected and the candidate who came fifth lost. The most important implication of such a system was that candidates could get elected with as little as fifteen percent of the total votes cast in a district enabling minorities to find representation even if voting was along communal lines.

It is impossible to say whether such a rule could have prevented the Partition. The point to note is that the choice of an electoral system is a vital element in democratic constitutional design and that the choice of electoral rules can make or break a country. Electoral rules are also much easier to change and adapt to circumstances than other components of a political system.

The same principle holds in other situations. The intelligent choice of rules can prevent conflicts without restricting the choices of numerical minorities with perspectives at odds with those of the majority. It is often how we approach a situation that determines the results we can achieve. 

Samia Altaf is the 2007-2008 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. This op-ed appeared in Dawn, Karachi, on June 1, 2008.

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  • Gautam Sen
    Posted at 21:33h, 08 December Reply

    The ART of democracy must consist of at least three elements: A – accountability of the government to the citizens to whom it is a servant, not a ruler. R – responsiveness to the needs of all citizens. T – transparency of the state in all matters that will affect citizens, including national security, where exceptions may need to be specifically made for tactical and strategic reasons.

    I would add a fourth element in the acronym to make it an essential PART of democracy (or TRAP, if you wish to be cynical): P – participation of all citizens in suitably delegated structures of discussion and decision making in matters affecting public life.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 21:17h, 15 December Reply

    You have summarized the main elements of democratic governance very ingeniously and very well. Participation, Accountability, Responsiveness, and Transparency. Any polity that does not have these can call itself by any name – Democracy, Peoples’ Democracy, Social Democracy, Workers’ Democracy, Islamic Democracy, Revolutionary Democracy – it is not a democracy. it is an autocracy pretending to be a democracy. A lot of people go along with this pretence because they benefit from the arrangement and the mass of the population is too helpless to do much about it for the moment.

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