THINK of Ishaq Dar. He has faced severe criticism for his tenure as finance minister since 2013. Much that is ailing the economy, from growing debt to shrinking exports, is blamed upon him.
His economic policies were dismissed as “Dar-nomics” and he was pejoratively called “the accountant”. That was despite the fact that several observers, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF), gave him credit for stabilisation and growth.
Things are not much different across the border as well. The Indian finance minister, Arun Jaitley, is claiming credit for the country jumping 30 places in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings. But opposition leaders say “job losses in the informal sector have resulted in a ‘Cease of Doing Small Businesses’”.
They argue that Mr Jaitley is India’s worst finance minister ever, holding him responsible for declining trade, plunging exports and rising inequality.
In their narrative, Mr Dar’s critics could copy-paste several of the comments meant for Mr Jaitley, and they would fit like a glove.
The reason is simple: people need someone to blame for their economic woes, and the finance minister is their favourite punching bag. It doesn’t matter whether he inherited a problem, he was just one of the many who created it, or it is beyond the control of any human being. The holder of the office of the finance minister is going to be held responsible.
After blaming a finance minister for all that is wrong in our economy, we also forget them rather quickly. The list of Pakistan’s finance ministers — excluding interim or caretaker, and in no particular order — includes Saleem Mandviwalla, Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, Shaukat Tarin, Shaukat Aziz, Naveed Qamar, Benazir Bhutto, Sartaj Aziz, Mian Yasin Khan Watto, Mahbubul Haq, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, Abdual Hafeez Pirzada, Mubashar Hassan, Nawab Muzaffar Ali Khan Qizilbash, Syed Muhammad Ahsan, N.M. Uqali, Abdul Qadir, Muhammad Shoaib, Syed Amjad Ali, Chaudhry Muhammad Ali and Ghulam Muhammad.
You probably saw some of them while growing up but how many do you remember? Very few, I presume. The ones you do remember are probably those who also held the office of prime minister or president at some point.
And who among them is widely remembered by Pakistanis as a successful finance minister? None!
This is quite different from our prime ministers and presidents. They seem to develop a following among ordinary Pakistanis and are remembered for some ideas and achievements, real or otherwise.
Why this difference?
The difference lies in the job of the finance minister of Pakistan. His job is not about winning hearts and minds, but raising and spending money. He is supposed to pursue “structural reforms” — things like fiscal tightening, deregulation, privatisation and trade liberalisation. They are as appealing as workout, diet, medicine and surgery. That’s not a recipe for love.
“All Treasurers, if they do good service to their masters, must be generally hated,” observed King James in a speech to the House of Lords in 1624. Ours can’t do much service and are hated nonetheless.
Pity the finance minister for our political economy of fiscal deficits does not let them do their job. With their eyes on the next election, the politicians in power would rather run deficits and defer reforms. For instance, it is not a coincidence that no finance minister has been successful in bringing the rich and powerful into the tax net in 70 years. The one who may begin to succeed will not remain a finance minister.
Luck also seems to have plotted against our finance ministers. Many Pakistanis live far below their aspirations. They are unlikely to believe their economic lot has improved under any finance minister. For those who do, they would likely attribute any such improvement to their own effort or luck.
They may not be wrong. Ours is a big country with a shockingly inefficient government machinery and widely undocumented economy. A lot of economic activity that happens in Pakistan has probably little to do with the policies of any finance minister.
To make matters worse, the portfolio is so large and complex that it is a Herculean task to manage even for a person of unusual abilities. With the passage of time, the room to manoeuvre for a finance minister of Pakistan has shrunk because of defence spending and debt servicing.
Researchers have tried to find out what characteristics make a person the “perfect finance minister”. Based on the German experience, one study concludes that his professional experience in the field helps reduce budget deficits.
This conclusion, although plausible, has not quite held true in Pakistan. Here, the words of a finance minister from Zimbabwe are more befitting who in 2009 described his job as the “worst in the world”.
Truth be told, our finance ministers are sent on a mission impossible. They can’t succeed and they can’t be loved.
— The writer is a former executive director at the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, December 25th, 2017