July 09, 2020
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Nations As Individuals

The faceless, cringing Pakistani, the eight-pack American and the royal Lilliput -- why do we like to morph complex, collective communities into eager, anxious, depressed, ecstatic or sullen individuals?

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Nations As Individuals

In the light of two recent global events, we seem to have employed a distinct register to talk about nations. We seem to have morphed complex, collective communities into eager, anxious, depressed, ecstatic or sullen individuals. There is an attribution of emotion, there is a jargon of psychology when we speak about these diverse demographies and imaginary behemoths. There is also the nonchalance of a coffee house talk, even in a serious commentary about them. This is slightly different from the jingoistic pride of the 'fatherland' and 'motherland' that we were used to decades ago. The worshipful distance isn't there any more, the nation isn't a deified figure but an ordinary person.

Sample some of these assertions about Pakistan, as if the nation was a 'patient etherised on the table'. This was immediately after the Abbotabad strike of the Americans to kill Osama bin Laden. In the eyes of the world, Pakistan looked like a 'liar' and a 'rogue'. The whole world suspected its motives and intentions. It was badly cornered, its sovereignty violated, yet, it was helpless. It could not hit back at the Americans. Imagine what each Pakistani had to do to defend himself/herself in drawing room debates across the globe. Ordinary citizens suddenly saw themselves under a heap of shame. They had nothing to do with the incident, but they had all become undertrials in the eyes of the rest of the world. It was like an individual going through a debilitating psychiatric condition and therefore, the words of Salman Bashir, the Pakistani foreign secretary, at a press conference sounded like that of a shrink: There is no need for Pakistani people to be "demoralised". They have to "take pride" in their country, he said. Those were empty words of counselling, but that captures the argument that we are trying to make.

Imagine the narratives of mainstream history documenting this incident for posterity. The nation can't in the near future escape the untrusting glance of the world. The effects of this can be measured only as one would measure the effects on an individual. There is no other mechanism available. Further, this is what Imran Khan, politician and former cricketer wrote in an article in The Independent: "There is just not confusion that prevails in Pakistan, but also a national depression at the loss of national dignity and self-esteem as well as sovereignty."

At the other end of the same incident was the United States and, similarly, the nation was being addressed and analysed as an individual. Not only did President Obama's 2008 campaign slogan 'Yes We can' come back, but its Schwarzenegger and Stallone-like images were also being flaunted. The return of 'hard power' was being celebrated. The extra terrestrial ab packs in place, they seemed to have single-handedly stalled the American decline. A Times of India report from Washington said: "It was only a few days ago that the Americans were lamenting the decline of their country, the waning of its status as a sole superpower. Rising China and shambolic India were invoked as serious competition although the US GDP in absolute terms is double that of the two countries combined. In internal memos, scholarly US officials had begun constructing a new national narrative of 'declinism,' defined as the periodic certainty that we are losing all the things that have made us a great nation."

Just before the Abbotabad incident was the royal wedding in Britain. It's a country that has had to confront some serious questions about its economy and identity in the recent past. And a country that lost the prefix 'Great' before its name decades ago. The wedding of Kate and William, which attracted billions of eyeballs, was some reassurance that it was not completely lost in the ocean of the world's consciousness. People still had some patience for the former rulers. The queen who had once been the kohinoor of half-the-world she ruled, it seemed had been invited to relive her glory for a day. Her subjects were virtual though. Nevertheless, the jaded and much ridiculed monarchs had earned some business, some confidence and some good-will for the rest of their countrymen. As Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge walked the aisle the nation felt young. There was spring outside. The tiredness was gone for a few hours.

Ian Jack, the former great editor of Granta and currently a Guardian columnist had a piece in Newsweek titled 'A Tale of Two Britains'. He wrote: "The souvenir tea towels have been printed, the mugs glazed, and a national holiday declared. For a whole day, Britain will play the game the world loves us for: royal Lilliput. Could this be the biggest role left for us?"

The faceless, cringing Pakistani, the eight-pack American and the royal Lilliput -- why do we like to view nations as individuals? Why do we like to hide the rest under one dominant figure? Why is it that nations are no longer about collectivism? Are we living the economic philosophy of our times? If we were to give India a persona now, what would that be? The snake-charmer, the yogi are dated for sure.

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