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National destinies

April 10, 2018


THE idea of great national destinies evokes strong patriotism. People in some countries hold strong beliefs that their country is destined for greatness, due to divine edicts, historical myths or founder prophecies. But these ideas are rarely based on objective social science analysis, and are often propagated by political elites among masses to mobilise them for the former’s own interests.

The reasons for the widespread existence of such beliefs among masses are not difficult to fathom. They add a bit of spice and feelings of being special to lives that may otherwise be dull and ordinary. So for people employed in routine jobs and tasks without much opportunity for personal achievements and recognition, clinging to the idea of a great national destiny can provide psychological pay-offs.

Even so, such national ‘sweet little lies’ can be harmless so long as they remain within limits. In fact, held within limits, they can often even help leaders motivate followers to achieve goals that may seem unachievable based solely on objective analysis.

From Pakistan’s own history, the case of the 1992 cricket World Cup victory represents one such example. While experts reviewing Pakistan’s prospects based on objective analysis had written it off, Imran Khan motivated the team to define all odds and win. So there is value in aiming higher than what purely objective analysis may suggest as being possible so long as leaders are aware of it but are able to put forward clear strategies for defying such analysis as Imran must have done in 1992. However, what succeeds in the cricket field becomes more difficult to achieve in more complex national-level political and economic endeavours.

Ideas about national destinies can also lead to trouble and even egregious tragedies when they become completely delinked from objective analysis. Hitler was able to convince the German nation of a manifest national destiny far beyond objective analysis, leading to a period of temporary mass national insanity which caused the death of millions. The US and Israel propaganda machine is also able to whip up similar notions of manifest national destinies which lead to their citizens ignoring the atrocities their governments perpetuate against others.

Scholars must introduce a healthy dose of reality.

The idea of a great national destiny resonates in Pakistan too. Many continue to cling to the notion that there was some great divine purpose behind Pakistan’s creation and that the nation has been deprived from achieving that greatness solely due to the machination of a self-serving political elite class.

This narrative has been carefully cultivated and exploited by Pakistan’s security establishment to lull the populace into supporting its own institutional goals. Such faith-linked notions has helped it maintain ‘jihad’ and a string ‘defence’ as the key component of national progress, more important than even economic progress. It also helps it present itself as a more reliable guardian of both national defence and economic progress than corrupt politicians.

But the gap between reality and rhetoric is so strong in our case that instead of being useful or even harmless, such notions about national destiny are actually becoming counterproductive.

Firstly, they are creating confusion whether the real goal of this state is national security (as defined narrowly by the security establishment) or people’s security and progress, as defined normally in the literature on social and economic development.

Secondly, they create a sense that this national destiny is a divine entitlement that will descend on us automatically as manna from heaven rather than something that has to be attained through practical strategies and joint hard work.

Finally, it deflects national attention and desire from feasible and achievable modest progress over a long period of time to massive and unrealistic progress in a short time. Instead of comparing ourselves with our South Asian neighbours with whom we share geography, history, culture and hence development potential, we are forever comparing ourselves with far away and very different societies in East Asia and Europe.

Where the gap between reality and rhetoric is so great, it is the job of scholars to puncture the bubble and introduce a healthy dose of reality. The national narrative screen is full of material about Pakistani exceptionalism and its inherent potential.

To provide an antidote, it may help to dwell a bit on Pakistani ordinariness which it shares with all other South Asian and most African states when it comes to resource endowments, social and human capital, length of national histories as independent states, etc. It is the job of policy and opinion makers in such states to inform people realistically about these factors and why they mean that the progress trajectory of such countries will be very different than those of European and East Asian states.

The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.

Published in Dawn, April 10th, 2018