Forever technocrats

Published September 26, 2023
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

FINANCE ministers in Pakistan are familiar faces, as familiar as SRK was to those who were young in the 1990s, and Bachchan to those who grew up in the 1970s.

However, the reason that the men and the occasional woman who lord it over Q Block are well-known is not because they are Bollywood hero material but because, like Dev Anand, they have just been around forever.

Consider our current finance minister, Shamshad Akhtar. She first joined government service back in the Musharraf years, when she became part of the State Bank, by which time she had already spent years working. She has also served as caretaker finance minister earlier.

Hafeez Shaikh was no different. He, too, joined the Musharraf regime to serve in more than one position before returning later once the general/ chief executive/ president had ceded to democracy and the government led by the PPP. Having returned to Q Block during the time of the PTI government, he remained there until he was unceremoniously removed.

However, each time there have been rumours of a caretaker or technocratic set-up being put together, he has topped the list, if gossip is to be believed. As a point of reference, Musharraf took over 24 years ago and was removed from government 15 years ago.

Ishaq Dar first headed this ministry during Nawaz Sharif’s second term, but according to some news reports, he had served as head of the Board of Investment during the first term of the Noonie quaid. And while opinions can vary about how successful he was in his various stints, no one would disagree he is PML-N’s only choice for finance minister a quarter century later. Shaukat Tarin, too, has been part of this power circle for long.

It seems that political and technocratic choices for the finance ministry are limited to a few people.

Indeed, other than a few short stints in recent times, it appears that political and technocratic choices for running the finance ministry have been limited to a handful of people who have made appearances in one position or another since the 1990s.

This also appears true for those who get appointed as advisers or special assistants: consider Waqar Masood, who is said to be the longest-serving finance secretary in Pakistan. And even that hasn’t convinced him of the need for change. He has also ‘advised’ the finance ministry more than once and continues to do so during the caretaker set-up.

This is not to say it is only the finance ministry which instils such single-minded devotion in those who work there. Less high-profile ministries or government departments also have similar aficionados. Atta-ur-Rahman’s sustained interest in the Higher Education Commission is well known, while the retired general who heads the Pakistan Olympic Association has already become a bit of a myth in Islamabad. Even ‘institutions’ are now acquiring habits of extended tenures.

But for obvious reasons, all these other examples are less known or generate less interest than those in the finance sector, who have become household names due to the fragility of the economy.

There are, however, larger and multiple issues with this trend of men hanging on to their positions.

As with an ageing political leadership, which at times appears disconnected with the average voter of Pakistan, who is much younger, it is not just a question of senior people clinging to positions instead of allowing younger ones to rise. I also wonder how possible it is for those who perhaps feel they ran the economy well during the 1990s to make the shift to current times, when the world has changed considerably.

It’s a thought that continues to recur as, soon after Ishaq Dar and his efforts to control the dollar, there is yet another administrative effort to control the market through a crackdown on money changers. It appears as if some of those in charge on the civilian side also believe in these ideas of administrative measures to fix the economy rather than addressing the fundamentals. Is it just a matter of age? Sometimes, it does appear so to people such as myself, who are watching the show from the sidelines.

Nonetheless, I would hasten to add, the issue is far more complex than just a question of age. For it is important to ask if the presence of the same faces for so long is a reason for the continuation of the bad old policies, or whether their presence is due to a desire to ensure that policies are not changed. After all, the never-changing elite capture that we are obsessed with is, perhaps, not just about status quo.

Perhaps it also means that only those who offer comfortable solutions — solutions which do not threaten any entrenched interest — are allowed to hold critical positions. For they have come to terms with the ‘ground realities’.

Consider a recent story in a local daily, which reported the suggestions of the commerce ministry to offer a lower electricity tariff, no sales tax scheme and other benefits to enhance exports. According to the story, the “proposals are aimed at continuing the status quo where a handful of industrialists have benefited from state resources for the past three decades without providing any real benefit to the country”.

And who can forget, as the story says, that the commerce ministry is being led by someone who has been closely associated with Aptma, synonymous with ‘exports’ in Pakistan?

Indeed, since I joined this profession, Pakistan’s exports and Aptma are like the Shahrukh-Kajol hit pair; no other industry has been able to break this pairing, which in itself is part of the same story of Pakistan’s economy stuck in the past.

Perhaps, what I am trying to say in my muddled way is that I may not be sure of the cause and effect here, but it seems as if the familiar faces in themselves are an indication that little will change, and the reform being promised may not be all that different from the past. Sometimes, a change of face matters.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2023

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