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Book Review: Circular History of Pakistan

This provocative book's central idea revolves around the feeling of perpetual déjà surrounding Pakistan's political theatre. Every political scene has been enacted before and is being re-telecast repeatedly. We are stuck in circular time and history and have not found our Nirvanic moment to follow the alternative trajectory of linear growth and development.

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The Author in the spotlight, Asim Imdad Ali, would be considered a polymath in most cultures, with extensive knowledge of the law, public administration & policy, business, and his first love, literature.

He has been a leading member of the C-suite of a large multinational with a footprint across Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and the Maldives in the corporate world and had previously served, with distinction, in the civil service of Pakistan as a member of the Pakistan Administrative Service.

He has written in the print media on Pakistan’s administrative, constitutional, and political history and international affairs. An alumnus of Harvard University (M.P.A., Kennedy School), honored as an Edward S. Mason Fellow, did his LL.M. from King’s College, London.

He is a gold medalist (LL.B., Punjab University). He has taught at the Civil Services Academy of Pakistan and served a term as the President of the Harvard Club of Pakistan.

The first part of the book on ‘Our Circular History’ recounts the political journey of a recurring, predictable, painful, and vicious decade-long Samsara of cyclic birth and death of order and freedom. This bird’s eye view shows how the same episodes keep happening with mind-boggling regularity.

The Author explores how our domestic resource constraints and our domestic political cycles are interconnected. An enduring historical theme has been an addiction to foreign inflows in the form of geo-rentals as we failed to solve our domestic resource constraints, our Malthusian predicaments.

This enduring foreign dependence meant that as long as this foreign addictive substance kept flowing, no one seemed impatient to solve our long-term complications of population explosion, domestic resource augmentation, and tightening our belts. Whenever there was an apprehension of such inflows’ supply-shock, domestic political vortex followed.

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An enduring theme in our history has been the quest of our guardian angels to craft somehow and enthrone a ‘cabinet of all talents’ that at the same time remained obsequious. These two goals are self-contradictory and incongruous, as talented stars are usually not in the habit of kowtowing.

Bowing ministers are generally not the most talented ones. That is why this quest of ‘cabinet of all talents’ remained elusive, and all such installations failed. With each new selection and elevation cycle, the totem pole’s top-placed less worthy and more comical characters. That is the underlying cause of the Bonsai political elite that we are left with: each new batch of such bogus inductees took us one step further into the sinking pit.

One good practice out of this vicious cycle could have been the electoral process, which is the fount of democracy. It is the established mechanism by which “we the people” choose their preferred public managers.

Our electoral process, however, was punctured and polluted. The partnership between greasy kleptocrats in each district (electables) and the guardian angels meant that this commandeered process became a mechanism to lock “we the people” out of power.

The slogan of “respect-the-vote” was egregiously bogus as each political party had, at one point or another, used this hijacked electoral process under which it was not those who vote but those who counted the vote mattered. The match was fixed before it started!

The civil service in Pakistan did not escape this vicious cycle either. From being the state itself to being the steel frame of the British Raj to being mighty functionaries of the newly independent state to being the development administrators to being blunt tools in the hands of the military and political masters to being underlings and camp-followers, and to some even becoming business partners of the greasy kleptocrats, the decline in the integrity and the performance of Pakistan’s civil service is palpable.

Whether maintaining law and order, generating revenues, managing schools, hospitals, collecting municipal waste, conducting vote count, or maintaining fiscal discipline, state functionaries’ output is hardly accounted as a civil or a genuine service.

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The second part of the book, ‘Chronicles of our Times,’ considers what is currently happening in our dear land. Our circular political past primarily shapes these contemporary events, but we also mimic what is happening in other parts of the world. New weaponized and micro-targeted social media has facilitated the global trend of cartoon history and political jokers.

The third part of the book ‘Future Panoramic Realities’ looks out to our region and the broader world, as all such changes around us continue to impact our domestic politics. It is natural to start with India.

The book talks about the current lurch towards chauvinism and Hindu nationalism in India, creating outgroups and alienating multiple sections of society. The norm of history is clear: the narrower the definition of in-group and the extremer the penalties meted out to outgroups, the higher the chances that those left out in the harsh world of outgroup may eventually take matters into their own hands and redefine their fate and future outside the current grouping. Thus, India’s future is an open question.

To avoid Pakistan’s fate (domestic turmoil and break-up), it will have to find the balance of normalcy and equity to avoid Pakistan’s fate (domestic turmoil and break-up).

This shift in global power dynamics will not be restricted to economics or military power but will also extend to language and culture. A few centuries ago, most European aristocrats, scientists, and businessmen spoke French: it was fashionable to speak French even in Moscow.

Then power shifted across the Atlantic, and European aristocrats, scientists, and people in business switched to English. As sure as the sun rises from the east, once the power shift from America to Asia becomes more concrete, the English language will fade one day.

The book also explains the conventional ways to get out of vicious cycles. The key to an endless growth cycle is an investment in innovation, knowledge, people, and creativity. That is the only actual virtuous cycle: without that, there can only be one-off spurts of growth, but only an investment in scientific research and innovation can generate the continuous growth cycle.

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We cannot join that virtuous cycle without redefining our national security state, our Hobbesian snare, and going back to the fundamental premise: what is the city but the people? Without that shift away from geo-rentals and geo-politics, we will never change our course. Only by investing in geo-economics, people, knowledge `banks, and critical technologies can we join the virtuous growth and development cycles.

Being an eternal optimist, the Author still has faith in the youth and technology. Two-thirds of the land comprises people under the age of 30. If they question every ‘noble falsehood’ that they come across, he is confident that the era of nurturing bonsais in the backyard, grooming false messiahs, and pursuing sugar-daddies will come to an end. We might be able to break the Yin-Yang cycle successfully, hopefully.

The second hope is in technology, as it solves historical Malthusian predicaments of humanity and may also help us in the future. The control of social media platforms by the semi-monopolist and unregulated giants and the hijacking of these communication mediums by well-financed interest groups is a sad fact.

However, the positive power of new channels of communication became apparent to the entire planet when a teenager in the United States of America recorded on her smartphone the gross crime of a soulless police officer crushing the neck of a dying black man who was begging for relief, while the police officer sadistically continued to strangle.

In the glare of new technology, all forms of scripts become transparent, and all tyrannies get exposed, as we saw happening across the Atlantic, where the united for-justice movement contributed to bringing down Trump. A teenager’s video triggered that historical movement! The author hopes that technology helps us in exposing our own tyrannies and take us to our new journey towards a future when Lex shall become Rex!

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