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Illustration by Marium Ali
Illustration by Marium Ali

It is tempting to start this essay with the sensationalist claim that the election of Imran Khan as prime minister is part of a process that may end the world as we know it. Apart from everything that is wrong with sensationalism, the statement may unfairly blur causation and correlation. In any case, the route to change will be long, coursing across the rapids, gorges and watersheds of political science and will be fed by various tributaries of international relations before meandering into history.

The process is well under way with the latest advent of populist politics that is sweeping across the western world. Examples range from the election of Donald Trump as the president of the United States, the successful Brexit referendum in Britain to leave the European Union, the electoral victory of Victor Orbán in Hungary, the rise to power of the Five Star Movement in Italy and the strong political showing of such right-wing ultra-nationalist parties as the Alternative for Germany, Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France and the Freedom Party in Austria.

The rise of populist parties and leaders is not confined to the West though. Closer to home, we have seen the Bharatiya Janata Party and its bhakts come to power in India and Rodrigo Duterte becoming president in the Philippines. And now we have Imran Khan as prime minister in Pakistan.

There are, of course, huge differences between these examples but populist politicians and parties, whether of the left or the right, all share a set of tactics or styles. For instance, instead of seeing politics as a process of competing interests, populists present it as a struggle between the forces of good and evil. They claim monopoly over morality and make difference of opinion with them a marker of immorality. They deny the very legitimacy of their opponents, pitting the ‘pure’ masses against a ‘corrupt’ elite. They shore up anger and disgust against their political opponents, bureaucrats, journalists, non-governmental organisations and dissenters, calling for their removal from jobs and even for their imprisonment. They, in short, brand themselves as leading a revolt against the system, the status quo, the stasis.

Other hallmarks of populists include: highly personalised styles of leadership (asking people to vote for the leader and not for the candidate), cultivation of a strongman saviour persona, emphasising upon a direct relationship between the leader and the people (awaam in our local parlance), the use of coarse language and manners (such as oye, geeli shalwars, etc) to challenge the established political culture and a push for popular but unsustainable policies (for instance, bringing back 200 billion US dollars of corruption money allegedly stashed abroad or building five million houses for the poor).

The intended consequences of these tactics and policies are increasingly becoming obvious across the globe. Populists everywhere are undermining whatever trust citizens have in the institutions and procedures of representative democracy.

Authors of Going to Extremes, a study published in 2016 in the European Economic Review, state that such trust deficit often follows economic upheavals. They looked at 800 elections in Europe across 140 years and found that, after every financial crisis, majority parties shrank, rightwing parties gained ground and political polarisation intensified.

The current wave of populism could be more of the same — a result of the financial crises in many countries. It is also entirely possible that it is not: that we are witnessing something qualitatively different from the panicked bursts of populism of the past. Here is why.

There are some common denominators in the content of the current surge of populism. In Europe, it is the fear of and aggression against migration and minorities and insecurities over cultural identity; in the United States, populism is targeted against immigrants and the globalised world economy and it stands for economic nativism; in India, it is about culture, religion and minorities; and in Pakistan, Imran Khan’s political rise owes it to his clarion calls for protecting Pakistan’s sovereignty and his mass mobilisation on the notion of national honour (qaumi ghairat) threatened and undermined by interventions from outsiders (though he has appreciably spoken in the favour of minorities and refugees).

Whether it was financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund or drone attacks by the United States inside Pakistani territory or civilian-centric American aid promised under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Law in return for specific restrictions on terrorist organisations — he portrayed each of them as national humiliation and surrender.

Taken together, this listing of immigrants versus locals, linguistic, religious and racial homogeneity, impermeable national borders, protected economy, sovereignty, national honour and national identity are all the characteristics of a single entity: the nation state.

The problem is that each of these is unraveling.

In Naara desert in Sindh, a woman told me about her son working as a driver with an oil and gas exploration company in its Islamabad office. What she said was: “Woh mulk mein naukri karta hai. Saal mein aik dafa watan waapis aata hai. Mein yahaan apni qaum ke saath rehti hoon” (he works in the country, comes back to his homeland once a year while I live with my community, or tribe, here).

Her formulation was as curious as it was revealing. Islamabad was a symbol of the state for her; Sindh was motherland and her own tribe was her nation. For her, mulk, watan and qaum were separate enclaves within the geographical boundaries of Pakistan. Nobody in her community found her phrasing jarring.

Where does this leave the nation state?

The nation and the state were not always synonymous. A state is a political entity comprising institutions of governance that operate within demarcated geographical borders. A nation is a group of people who believe they have a common origin, shared history and a collective culture, language and/or ethnicity — commonalities that make them distinct from other groups. A nation state, thus, is a space inhabited by a relatively homogenous group of people who are governed by the same set of political, legal and economic institutions. Essentially, each nation gets its own state and, conversely, each state has one nation living in it.

In theory, therefore, a nation state makes political and geographical boundaries correspond with psychosocial ones. In actuality, the story varies.

The history of the nation state can be traced back to the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War in which more than five million people died across Europe in religious and sectarian conflicts. The war ended with the ‘Peace of Exhaustion’ that resulted in the Treaty of Westphalia. The treaty stated that the ruler of each realm would decide the official religion of their domain, limiting the role of the church and the Holy Roman Empire in this regard. This is how the idea of worldly sovereignty was born in Europe — as opposed to divine sovereignty bestowed by the clergy.

The creation of nation states gained momentum in the 20th century when independence movements coalesced around nationalism against the colonial powers of Spain, France and Britain. Between 1944 and 1984, 90 new states were created. As of now, the world is divided into 193 states.

Prime Minister Imran Khan addresses a government-organised religious conference in Islamabad | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
Prime Minister Imran Khan addresses a government-organised religious conference in Islamabad | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

Prior to the 20th century, there existed many other forms of political sovereignty. The world was dotted with city states, princely states and principalities, unclaimed land and multi-ethnic empires with no checks on the movement of people across their borders. The Ottoman Empire, the British Empire, the Russian Empire and the Austrian Empire, among others, were hereditary monarchies, each of them populated by diverse ethnic, linguistic, religious and racial groups.

Nations, on the other hand, are socially constructed. This bears repeating in the context of Pakistan where many see the Pakistani nation as a natural and even a divinely ordained entity — a manifestation of our collective destiny.

Nations are ‘imagined communities’, as political scientist Benedict Anderson put it, and nationalism is a way of creating such imagined communities. Medievalist Patrick Geary has described modern nationalism (which includes movements for ethnic nationalism and sub-nationalism) as a myth and a pseudo-science. He calls modern history as something created in the 19th century as an instrument of nationalism. There is consensus among scholars ranging from Eric Hobsbawm to Andrew Gellner that nations do not make states and give birth to nationalism but the other way round.

Consider a counterfactual: what if the whacky proposal of Choudhry Rahmat Ali (who coined the name Pakistan) had materialised. He proposed Pakistan as just one of the many ‘stans’ to be carved out of India –– the others being Siddiqistan, Haideristan, Farooqistan, Usmanistan and Bangistan. Or consider the map he bizarrely titled, “Pakistan at the Dawn of History”, in which he included the whole of Iran, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan as being part of a prehistoric Pakistan. In both of his versions of the country, self-perception of what constitutes the Pakistani nation would have been entirely different.

The idea of a nation is primarily based on distinctions between in-groups and out-groups, on who qualifies as a member of a nation and who does not. Who is included, what the inclusion criteria is and what ties a nation together — these are fundamental issues because status and rights in a nation state are determined by them.

Most postcolonial states have multiple nations living within their boundaries that have been drawn up by their erstwhile colonisers. Innumerable conflicts have arisen in these countries because of the fact that political boundaries do not always neatly correspond with ethnic, cultural or religious ones. The most obvious deviation from the ideal of ‘one nation, one state’ is the presence of minorities, which differ in significant ways from majority communities, in almost all of these countries. The whiplash to these minorities has ranged from the on-going persecution of Rohingyas in Myanmar, expulsion of the Roma in Europe, forced assimilation of indigenous groups in the United States and Australia, communal violence and riots in India and genocide of the Tutsi tribe by the Hutu tribe in Rwanda as well as of Bosnian Muslims by Serbs in ex-Yugoslavia. In Pakistan, it led to the dismemberment of the country through a civil war in 1971 as East Pakistan fought for and attained independence as Bangladesh.

A forced contouring of a nation by defining who rightly belongs to it and who does not, thus, is a problem genetically embedded within the nation state model.

What has changed now?

Every few years, some people start predicting the end of the nation state while some others dismiss these predictions as overreaching, scaremongering or just naively apocalyptic. These clashing opinions, however, do not hide the fact that the trends that weaken the nation state are accelerating. The notion of sovereignty – a state’s jurisdiction for governance – is increasingly being constrained due to several factors given below.

Global movement of capital

Globalised markets erode the power of national governments over the trade of goods. National borders also can no longer control the flow of money. International trade agreements limit the power of nation states even over domestic markets, thereby reducing their ability to offer protection to domestic manufacturers from foreign competition. Global financial institutions impose conditions on governments that seek financial help from them, including on where a government should earn money from and what it should spend it on.

Transnational corporations, with annual sales higher than the gross domestic output of many individual countries, leverage their position to gain access to cheap labour, to benefit from tax breaks, to seek exemptions from local laws and to expand their financial influence. Citizens do not need much more than a computer to move huge amounts of money beyond the reach of national governments into offshore accounts or to invest elsewhere and financial elites can increasingly escape national allegiances and national political authority.

A globalised world economy has also led to high levels of inequality both within and among the nation states and, as many scholars have pointed out, political leaders resort to nationalism in times of high economic inequality. They use nationalism as a diversion from economic realities and to generate solidarity otherwise threatened by unequal distribution of wealth and resources.

Communication technologies

National borders are also becoming increasingly meaningless in the face of communication technologies. Information flow is now instantaneous, easy, cheap, decentralised and, barring a few exceptions, unregulated. The Internet and social media sites have broken the stronghold of national media and the total users of such Internet and social media giants as Facebook, Google and YouTube outnumber the population of every individual country, including India and China.

The Internet has also created a space for complex social interactions, including political ones, which are not determined by geographical considerations. The rise of global consciousness on the back of information and communication technologies is creating new identities and associations such as the MeToo movement.

Non-state actors launching cyberattacks in far off places also show how keeping national politics a closed-border affair has become all but impossible. The 2016 elections in the United States provide a vivid example of how sovereignty, which is essentially the power of a state to stop others from interfering in its internal affairs, was seriously compromised by troll farms operating from Russia and Macedonia.

Information and communication technologies are also giving rise to new dynamics in income generation and wealth distribution. After artificial intelligence and 3D printing become commonly available, the ability of national governments to create low-skill jobs will be seriously eroded.

It is hardly surprising then that the main form of inequality in the next few decades will be access, or lack of access, to the Internet. Being called as ‘digital exclusion’, it is fast becoming synonymous with economic inequality in academic literature.

Indian Prime Minister Narender Modi on the right | Reuters
Indian Prime Minister Narender Modi on the right | Reuters

All this – and not even including in it electronic cash and cryptocurrencies that move around without a nod from central banks and national financial regulators – illustrates how the state’s authority is disappearing even in spheres that were once considered its exclusive domain.

The rapid rise of information and communication technologies is overriding another fundamental function of the nation state: to keep an eye on its citizens. Big data companies have started supplanting the state even in this sphere.

Populist nationalism is emerging as a reaction to these developments. As other contenders for power emerge and the state’s authority diffuses, these are mirrored in the need for populist ‘strongmen’ leaders who can assert authority and control where control seems to be fraying. There is a longing for an idealised, pure past –– whether it is a caliphate for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the ‘state of Madina’ for Imran Khan, a Hindu homeland for Hindu fundamentalists in India, or the need to ‘make America great again’ in the United States. Strong leaders everywhere are claiming that they can restore glories of the past.

Human mobility

Human movement from one territory to another has been a constant across millennia. But it no longer involves just the occupation of unclaimed territory or a movement to areas which have low population density and/or low levels of regulation. One million asylum seekers, mainly from Asia and Africa, landed in 2015 alone in the member states of the European Union. Though their number has decreased to a quarter of that in the following years, it is still enough to spark a political and humanitarian crisis.

Analysts explain the rise of right-wing populist parties across Europe – as well as Brexit – mainly as an effect of the fear of being flooded by migrants who would stretch the host states’ resources thin and could also change their cultural and racial make-up.

We also know that two countries, Maldives and Kiribati, will be submerged by rising seas in the coming decades, requiring all their citizens to move to another state. Estimates from a World Bank study show that climate change can displace over 140 million people by 2050.

These figures are apart from and in addition to the routine emergence of economic migrants and conflict refugees across the world. What will happen when hundreds of millions of people move across nation states? This question becomes even more salient when people from the global south wonder why citizenship – an accident of birth – should act as a lifelong quarantine when other barriers linked to birth such as class, caste and even gender can be and have been surmounted.


The nation state was the classic provider of security and fundamental rights in exchange for loyalty by citizens. It is increasingly unable to guarantee both. Specialised regimes of international law have been instituted in arenas that were previously the exclusive remit of the nation state, such as trade regulation and enforcement of human rights.

Environmental emergencies are similarly making single-country responses unhelpful, if not entirely useless. Carbon emissions in one country wreaking havoc in another, for instance, necessitate fundamental changes in the distribution of natural resources across state boundaries. Calling it “The Great Derangement”, Indian writer Amitav Ghosh says climate change is more a crisis of culture and imagination than a natural hazard.

The other monumental contemporary crisis that is beyond national jurisdictions to address is that of terrorism. While terrorists operate across countries and regions, law enforcers and security agencies are obstructed by unwieldy jurisdictional issues and competing national interests. An immediate example of this is the Pak-Afghan border. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a terrorist entity in western Asia, also offers an interesting case study in this regard. It publicly stated that it would right the wrongs done by the Sykes-Picot agreement that divided the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire between Britain and France after World War I in order to protect the economic interests, including oil supplies, of these two European powers. It later set up its own territorial jurisdiction that contravened imperially carved nation states and their borders.

If nothing else, this action has been a direct challenge to the artifice of the nation state.

It is useful to reflect on the process through which nations were crafted and converged with states — to understand how and why the current global dynamics and trends are working as a centrifugal force on the nation state model. Nations are created through narratives — histories and stories of origin contoured with invented traditions, rituals and grafted meanings.

The nation state itself was made possible largely through the advent and advancement of communication technologies. American historian Elizabeth Eisenstein has shown how the printing press enabled the emergence of a common language, standardised education and shared national sensibilities.

In the absence of these developments, most nation states would not have even come into being. When France became a nation state after the French Revolution, half of its population did not speak French. When Italy was unified, less than 15 per cent of its people spoke Italian; many did not speak the language until television sets became common in the 1960s. Pakistan, therefore, was not unique in having a national language that only a small part of the population initially spoke.

Propagandist or mythologised interpretation of events as national history has also been used as a standard tool by many states in nation-building. But where these did not permeate fully into the collective ethos, the nation state model continued to hover a few feet above people’s heads, allowing identity wormholes such as the one occupied by the woman I met in Naara desert.

The use of media and its various platforms for information dissemination and as a tool for control of public opinion was critical for national elites to create national narratives. Many of them are now struggling to keep doing that.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has talked about cyber sovereignty, claiming that all countries should have the right to regulate the Internet within their own borders. Many online social networking platforms, including Twitter, are not available in China. Pakistan has also attempted to control new media by, for instance, banning YouTube (but people figured out ways around it in less than a week) and keeping many other websites out of bounds. Our government is also trying to set up a military-led telecom system that will give the state extensive powers to monitor and censor the Internet.

But you cannot impose Section 144 in virtual space.

Donald Trump at a campaign rally | AP
Donald Trump at a campaign rally | AP

While there have been times in the past when the flow of information suddenly picked up speed, latest advances have not just impacted the speed of communication they have also reduced the cost of transmitting information. So, while the Guttenberg Press demystified for common people what the powerful were talking about, current advances have broken the fourth wall, creating an affordable and accessible two-way information highway that can generate its own velocity and intensity.

Traditional bureaucracies have banked on monopolising information and political elites have relied on monopolising the means of political engagement. By allowing those with a computer and an Internet connection to curate and disseminate information and to engage politically, digital media platforms are changing the very nature of power.

Consider political realist Joseph Nye Jr’s definition of power: it is the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes you want. When the nation state rose to dominance during the industrial age, governments sought to achieve that by controlling the bodies and lives of citizens through what theorist Michel Foucault called “biopower”. In the information age, biopower alone cannot guarantee the desired outcomes. “Success,” as Nye Jr points out, “depends not just on whose army wins, but also whose story wins.”

This statement also encapsulates the problem that derails any overarching analysis. While the nation state’s ability to dictate the market of stories is increasingly constrained, its armies and security apparatus continue to increase their ‘hard power’ destructive capacities as well as resources for monitoring and surveillance. It is hard to predict how the nation state model will recalibrate this internal asymmetry of power which, in another manifestation, is also increasingly allowing many states to deploy for propaganda the same Internet-powered, citizen-driven media that was once expected to bring about democratisation of public dialogue.

There are no linear progression patterns as far as the future of the nation state is concerned.

My niece recently had a class assignment to draw an alien from a fantasy planet. She tells me all the children in her class drew figures of various shapes and colours but all those figures had eyes, noses, mouths and limbs of varying numbers. If the imagination of 10 year olds is already captive to what is familiar, the older ones cannot even begin to imagine. The nation state as an idea is hegemonic. Those whose identity is synchronised to fit into a defined nation struggle to even conceive an ‘outside’.

Earlier issues faced by nation states, such as secessionist movements, furthered their logic and did not challenge them. Those movements were launched by various groups/communities who were themselves aspiring to become nation states. The concept of a nation state based on a manifested geographical reality or territory is now being tested in new ways. As money, information and people zoom across the world, or even across cyberspace, without requiring senders and recipients to leave their homes, many things – economic activity, citizenship, human relationships and cultural identities – are becoming de-territorialised. What geography itself means is changing.

Alternatives are emerging as experiments. Some are hare-brained, madcap ventures like seasteads –- people trying to create permanent dwellings in international waters outside the jurisdiction of any government; cities floating in high seas. Others seem like viable precursors to a new world. Estonia, for instance, has introduced e-residency, giving digital citizenship to people anywhere in the world whereby they can register and run businesses and access public services in the same way as those born and living in Estonia can.

Maybe the ancient idea of city states, aligned in confederations of sorts, will come back with a digitised vengeance. Or, in spite of the fact that the European Union is faltering right now and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) seems to be a dead elephant, perhaps regional governance bodies are the way forward.

The nation state may well survive all this by adapting. To avoid the typical aggravating Pakistani sign off: will it be this, or will it be that, only time will tell, let us segue into the metaphysics of identity.

In the Ship of Theseus thought experiment, a ship belonging to the mythological Greek king Theseus has its parts replaced over the years. Does it still remain the same object after all its parts have been changed? What if all except one of the original planks are changed? What if they are changed at the same time? What if they are gradually changed one by one over decades? What if the design is changed in the process of replacement? What if the ship’s purpose changes? Is it still the Ship of Theseus? What if another ship uses its discarded parts? Will that ship, then, become the Ship of Theseus?

If countries adopt a civic nationalism with allegiance to laws, institutions and rights – instead of relying on imagined historic affinities – or embrace multiple nations in an expanded identity, allow roving populations to stake citizenship claims, permit regulation by international authorities, or redefine sovereignty or territory, will they still be nation states?

The debate about the future of the nation state may be less critical for people in Pakistan than to people in many other parts of the world. The nation state model has never managed to create an airtight overlapping of identity and geography here in the first place. But the debate will remain critical for the state itself. The woman in Naara desert simply pointed towards the divergence between the people and the state which officialdom has attempted to paper over with concepts such as national interest and the ideology of Pakistan.

Pakistani establishment, that has historically resisted the transfer of power to domestic civil authority, now has to contend with the diffusion of power to international markets, supra-state governance bodies and people’s agency across the globe. Just when it is expanding its ability to impose its writ, the very notion of the writ of the state is under global fire. But these emerging challenges cannot be firewalled and insulation from it is not possible. We cannot be inoculated against global change.

The rise of populist politicians and parties seems to be a pushback against changes in the nation state model that are inevitable in any case. The dialectics between the two will gush and flow at varying gradients, causing much damage and collecting much debris along the way.

Legends tell us that all forms known to us emerge from such metaphoric primordial waters. There is a local saying we are all familiar with: the river makes its own way. It is best to let it. Pakistan is a young country with an incomplete story but its narrative arc cannot be dictated. It will write itself. It is best to let it.

The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector.

This was originally published in the Herald's December 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.