Review: The Shortest History of Democracy by John Keane - Hindustan Times
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Review: The Shortest History of Democracy by John Keane

BySaleem Rashid Shah
Jun 28, 2024 09:53 PM IST

A fresh and bold perspective on democracy that spans the ancient popular assemblies of the Indian subcontinent and Syria-Mesopotamia and contemporary nations with their specific challenges

A pivotal moment in India’s medieval history, the battle between the invading forces of Babur and of Ibrahim Lodhi at Panipat in 1526, laid the foundation of the Mughal Empire and altered the course of India’s future. In the centuries to come, this battlefield would witness two more conflicts that would lead to significant changes in how the subcontinent was ruled. The destiny of India was shaped on this battlefield by armies that used war elephants, gunpowder firearms, field artillery, swords and shields.

People queue up to cast their vote in New Delhi on May 25, 2024. (Altaf Qadri/AP Photo)
People queue up to cast their vote in New Delhi on May 25, 2024. (Altaf Qadri/AP Photo)

224pp, ₹499; Picador India
224pp, ₹499; Picador India

Over 400 years later, in 1951-52, India had its first general election. Citizens voted to elect their representatives to the Indian parliament. The story had moved on from bullet to ballot. It was now the people who, in a peaceful and bloodless manner, held sovereignty and the will to choose their leaders. The huge field of Panipat was no more the anvil on which the destiny of India was shaped. Democracy and the secret ballot provided people with the first ever malleable form of government.

John Keane’s The Shortest History of Democracy offers a fresh and bold perspective on the history of democracy spanning from ancient popular assemblies in Syria-Mesopotamia and the Indian subcontinent to the contemporary global challenges faced by democracies.

“Why is democracy everywhere reckoned to be in retreat? Why is it that a way of governing and living that until recently was said to have enjoyed a global victory facing extinction? Why is it that in Belarus, Bolivia, Myanmar, Hong Kong and other places, citizens are the victims of arrest, imprisonment, beating and execution?” Millions of citizens around the world are asking these questions and this book helps answer some of them.

A notable aspect of democracy is that it allows people to make mistakes and also gives them a chance to subsequently revise their opinions and amend their decisions. Keane writes: “It has a sauvage (wild) quality, as the French thinker Claude Lefort (1924-2010) liked to say: It tears up certainties, transgresses boundaries and isn’t easily tamed. It asks people to see through talks of gods, divine rulers and even human nature; to abandon all claims to an innate privilege based on the ‘natural’ superiority of brain or blood, skin color, caste, class, religious faith, age or sexual preference. Democracy denatures power.” By promoting the idea that individuals can change their circumstances, democracy prevents the dominance of a select few, particularly the wealthy and the powerful, who might behave as if they are entitled to rule indefinitely. By advocating for a political system that maintains an ongoing discussion about the distribution of resources and power, democracy addresses the age-old problem of elitism, where self-proclaimed giants govern. From its inception, this system acknowledged that while humans may not be perfect beings, they are capable of preventing others from acting as if they were flawless. Conversely, because people are not inherently saintly, nobody can be trusted to rule over others without checks to their power. As the Chinese writer Lin Yutang remarked: “humans are more like potential crooks than honest gentlefolk, and that since they cannot be expected always to be good, ways must be found of making it impossible for them to be bad.” The democratic ideal is government of the humble, by the humble, for the humble.

John Keane asks a pertinent question in the concluding chapter: “Could democracy instead be a fake global norm, a pseudo-universal ideal that jostles for attention, dazzles with its promises and, for a time, seduces people into believing that it is a weapon of the weak against the strong – when in reality it is just organized bribery of the poor by the rich, an ignorant belief in collective wisdom, an accomplice of human crimes against nature?”

Author John Keane (Courtesy Pan Macmillan India)
Author John Keane (Courtesy Pan Macmillan India)

By tackling these ethical questions, John Keane reveals the radical potential of democracy. Calling it a “shape-shifting way of protecting humans and their biosphere against corrupting effects of unaccountable power” he adds that democracy is insistent that “people’s lives are never fixed, that all things, human and non-human, are built on the shifting sands of space-time, and that no person or group, no matter how much power they hold, can be trusted permanently, in any context, to govern the lives of others.”

Democracy then acts as an early warning system, empowering citizens, organisations, and networks to raise alarms when they sense potential harm or impending disasters. Nietzsche famously complained that democracy stands for the disbelief in rule by elites and strongmen. Democracy grounds things in reality and effectively prevents leaders from entering realms of delusion where abuse of power can be masked by rhetoric, falsehoods and silence.

In this vigorous and illuminating history of democracy, Keane teaches us that in democracy no individual is flawless enough to govern indefinitely without being accountable to others. Rahat Indori’s famous couplet captures this essence:

Jo aaj Sahib-e-masnad hai kal nahi honge, Kiraaye daar hai zaati makaan thodi hai”

(Those who are masters today will not remain so tomorrow, they are just tenants, not the owners of this abode)

Saleem Rashid Shah is an independent writer and a book critic based in Kashmir.

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