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From obscurity to country's top office

Updated November 24, 2016

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Moeen Qureshi, who passed away in Washington because of lung infection at the age of 86 on Tuesday, was in Singapore in the summer of 1993 where he received a call from the then president Ghulam Ishaq Khan. Very few people in Pakistan had heard his name at that time. But Ishaq Khan asked this former senior vice president of the World Bank to briefly return home to lead a caretaker government of technocrats in Islamabad that was being forged by the military establishment to oversee third general elections in the country in the space of five years. He accepted the offer.

Moeen Qureshi. Photo courtesy: Radio Pakistan (radio.gov.pk)
Moeen Qureshi. Photo courtesy: Radio Pakistan (radio.gov.pk)

Born on June 26, 1930, in Lahore to a prominent religious family from Kasur, Qureshi had spent a better part of his life away from home, serving in senior positions at the International Monetary Fund, International Finance Corporation and the World Bank in the United States and elsewhere.

With a BA (Honours) from the Government College, Lahore (now the Government College University, Lahore) and an MA degree from the Punjab University, he left the country for a PhD in economics from the Indiana University, United States, on a Fulbright scholarship. After completing his degree, he did return home but only for a brief period to join the civil services in 1955. He left the country for good to join the IMF after serving in the Planning Commission for about a year — only to briefly return to oversee economic and civil service reforms during his three-month stint as acting prime minister of the country.

He was establishing his own hedge fund, the Emerging Market Associates, after retiring from the World Bank a year or so before, when he got the call from Ishaq Khan to return to the homeland for a cameo, not in the role of a saviour but that of a caretaker whose job was to hold an election and hand over power to the elected prime minister.

For someone of his stature Qureshi kept a remarkably low profile. It seemed that far from the rescue act some people here forever wanted him to commit to, he preferred the reputation of a man who knew how far he could stretch himself. Restraint was a quality of his personality that stood out, as a compliment to the training he had undergone on his journey to becoming a respected name in the global financial circles.

There have been caretakers since who have won respect of Pakistanis for self-control and austerity they have shown during their short terms — just as there have been controversial interim set-ups accused of partiality. Qureshi was a case apart. He was workmanlike.

The prime minister’s office was actually a well-intentioned but brief diversion from the course during his sparkling career in the international bureaucracy. But coming from nowhere, he did set off a trend of sorts by managing to complete the stopgap job in Islamabad without drawing the ire of too many.

The job came his way in the wake of a high drama in the capital when Ishaq Khan deposed then prime minister Nawaz Sharif in the middle of his five-year-term whose government was later restored by the Supreme Court before the military under Gen Abdul Waheed Kakar decided to intervene and saw both of them off.

Finding Ishaq Khan’s replacement, Waseem Sajjad, for the interim period was easy. But finding a neutral, clean person to hold the top executive office from within the country was a bit a tricky. So both the military establishment and the outgoing president voted in favour of Qureshi, a political outsider who had lived outside the country for almost all his life and was “untainted” by local political likes and dislikes.

Over time, just as this country emerged from one crisis to be embroiled in another, the Moeen Qureshi formula has won favour with so many political commentators. In the minds of many a remedy provider, he was a Pakistani who by living abroad had gained just the right kind of distance to qualify for the job of looking after the affairs of the country. He epitomised the ‘requisite’ aloofness, on the pattern of the British rulers of the subcontinent.

“The appointment of Qureshi as caretaker prime minister of the country indicates our establishment’s obsession with internationally recognised, apolitical non-resident Pakistani technocrats who can solve all the problems facing us and clean up the mess created by politicians because they are neutral and untainted. It doesn’t matter if these technocrats know nothing about this country, its people, its terrain and its landscape, let alone political sensitivities,” a commentator said on the condition of anonymity.

He was of the view that the establishment’s desire to have a well-educated non-resident Pakistani technocrat stemmed from its deep-seated yearning for a government that was occupied more with day-to-day running of the affairs rather than “messing” with the country’s foreign and security policies.

“The formula didn’t work in 1993 and it will not work anytime in future either. Only democracy, however messy and noisy, can take care of our mess.”

Mr Qureshi’s funeral will be held on Saturday at 10am at a mosque in Rockville, Maryland. He will be buried at Parklawn Cemetary in Rockville, where he had reserved a plot for himself next to his wife. The Pakistan Embassy has asked Islamabad for permission to accord him the formal honours given to a former prime minister at his or her burial.

Anwar Iqbal in Washington contributed to this report.

Published in Dawn November 24th, 2016