Tuesday June 18, 2024

Making a hero

By Daniyal Khan
October 22, 2022

Miftah Ismail may have stepped down as minister of finance, but he isn’t out. On The Pakistan Experience podcast with Shehzad Ghias, he appeared to be as relaxed as a man can be – at ease with who he is and what he has done with his time in office.

The podcast episode is essential viewing because it gives great insight into Mr Ismail’s worldview. But the conversation raises as many questions as it answers. For example, one wonders how a former public servant can be so casual about challenges to civilian supremacy and hence to the constitution. Is it in the country’s interest for a federal minister to simply run with the intervention and influence? Don’t ask negative questions. We’re busy celebrating his fiscal prudence, after all.

Some things are clear. The UPenn doctoral degree assured us of his competence and credibility. The professional credentials are unimpeachable and they endeared him to technocrats. It is also undeniable that his sincerity came through. Speaking to the Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry on September 10, 2022, Mr Ismail spoke passionately about the chasm between the poorest and richest in the country. And he showed that he could be combative if the moment called for it, and couldn’t be trifled with. See his press conference addressing the Tarin-Jhagra phone call leak on August 29, 2022. From a rhetorical point of view, it was also a success to present himself as a man choosing country over party in making difficult decisions. Perhaps most significantly, his single stated goal was to make sure Pakistan got the IMF money and prevent default. And he got it done while battling his own party.

The admiration and praise should be tempered with the knowledge that he was without question an unelected minister of finance with no public mandate other than belonging to the PML-N – which doesn’t say much. His party is only one part of the present governing coalition which has been shown up by the PTI with every by-election. It is a party which has allowed greater intervention in the process of appointment and promotions of public office holders; a party under which the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority is spreading its tentacles further, blocking YouTube on multiple occasions and cracking down on VPN use. A party which in many ways continues the legacy of the PTI, which itself was continuing the work of the PML-N when it came to the PECA law. And as I have written before, it is a significant and consequential problem to be unable or unwilling to reconcile any version of the national interest with any version of the party interest.

So this is where we are right now: anyone who can keep us from falling off the edge that Pakistan routinely lives on is a hero. This is a country with a bad case of 'if everything is under control you’re not going fast enough'. But as the pressures of climate change and disease pile on and Pakistan is tied up on the one hand by the paper shackles of debt and on the other hand by the political establishment, the country is traveling a narrow road with a cliff on one side and the rocky mountain face on the other. If we’re lucky, perhaps we keep traveling this road till the scenery changes. If not, perhaps we crash into the mountain and fall off the cliff all in one go.

Admirers of Miftah’s heroism in keeping Pakistan from falling off the default cliff by making sure the IMF safety rope stays hooked into the Pakistani economy should reflect on whether the IMF tether might be part of the problem. The IMF has been part of the Pakistani economy’s story for years now. Is there any chance that it is this tether which is keeping us right on the cliff edge? Is this where we want to be? Something has to give. Social systems can only take so much strain. A crushing blow could come from anywhere, and Pakistan will likely remain unprepared, as it was for Covid-19 and the floods. Pakistan is persisting, but like an aging and ailing hamster on a wheel: running fast and fast running out of breath while going nowhere.

Crises provide a stage for heroes, villains and mythmaking. For some, Miftah Ismail has emerged as something of a hero due to his competence and courage under fire: a man besieged on all sides by opponents as well as his own party leadership. After all, who doesn’t like a man seemingly standing alone selflessly, surrounded, holding off growling predators all on his own? Miftah might as well have been called Maximus the gladiator if you believe the tales. But in the end, like so many other Pakistanis, he may just be someone who kept Pakistan on the edge – exactly where Pakistan wants to be.

The writer is an economist. He tweets @khand154