The President's man

Print edition : July 30, 2004

Shaukat Aziz. - MIAN KHURSHEED/REUTERS

SHAUKAT AZIZ, Pakistan's "Prime Minister-in-waiting", is a banker's pride and a politician's envy. After a three-decade-long career in corporate banking and less than two years of `active' politics, he has risen to the position that any politician could aspire for in the guided politics of military-dominated Pakistan.

He was chosen for the job by General Pervez Musharraf, the most powerful President Pakistan has ever had. It does not matter if he does not fulfil the basic qualification - he is not a member of the National Assembly. Chaudary Shujjat Hussain, the chief of the military-made Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam) who hails from the Punjab province, has been installed in the Prime Minister's seat pending Aziz' election. Aziz, currently a member of the Senate, is contesting from two constituencies in byelections scheduled for August 18.

Why did Musharraf select Aziz? In the words of the General, if neighbouring India can accept a renowned economist as its Prime Minister, why not Pakistan?

However, if the Opposition parties are to be believed, Musharraf could have been motivated by two factors - To please the all-powerful United States and the international financial institutions, and to show his disdain for the political class, even of the servile kind. Aziz has a strong U.S. connection, as he has served with Citibank for 30 years, 22 of these outside Pakistan. Aziz was vice-president of Citibank when he quit his job after Musharraf's coup in October 1999 and took charge as Finance Minister in his government.

In his first interview to the state-run Pakistan Television (PTV) after he was named "Prime Minister-in-waiting", Aziz said that the first time he saw Musharraf was on the CNN, a few hours after the bloodless coup on October 12, 1999 when the General first addressed the people of Pakistan. "In New York I had casually tuned in to the CNN and I heard Gen. Musharraf's address," he told the interviewer. As if to emphasise the point that he had no connections with the all-powerful military, Aziz made it known that never before had he visited the GHQ (headquarters of the Pakistan Army).

Aziz said that a few days later the General sent him a message asking him to travel to Pakistan and call on him. "When I met the General saheb, he asked me if I would like to serve as Finance Minister in his government. I was delighted as it was always my desire to serve the people of Pakistan," he told PTV.

To a query about his passport, he replied: "I never gave up [my] Pakistani passport. It was a matter of pride, well, my identity. Non-resident Pakistanis tend to be more patriotic and nationalistic." It need not necessarily mean that he does not have a U.S. passport. Three days later, as Opposition members in the Senate created a furore over the subject and wanted him to clarify if he had a U.S. passport, Aziz chose not to join issue with them.

Committed to the International Monetary Fund-World Bank duo's free market philosophy, Aziz is credited with injecting new life into the dying Pakistani economy. When he took over the reins of the economy five years ago, the country was on the verge of debt default and the forex reserves were not enough to take care of even a fortnight's requirements. There was massive flight of capital, and the dollar was gaining value vis-a-vis the Pakistani rupee at an alarming rate.

Undoubtedly, today the Pakistani economy has made a spectacular recovery on every front with a growth rate of over 6 per cent, the highest recorded in recent decades. However, critics wonder how much of the credit should go to Aziz and how much of it could be attributed to the massive cash flows from the U.S. and its allies after the designation of Pakistan as a frontline ally in the "war against terrorism".

Although Aziz has been the Finance Minister of Pakistan for nearly five years, he has not trusted Pakistani banks and financial institutions to invest his own assets. As his declaration before the Pakistan Election Commission shows, his foreign exchange account in the country had a balance of $761. In contrast, his Citibank account in New York accounted for $2.91 million and the one with Lloyds in London 0.31 million.

Born in Karachi in March 1949, Aziz obtained an MBA from the Institute of Business Administration, University of Karachi, in 1969. He started his career in 1969 when he joined Citibank in Karachi. Aziz moved overseas in 1975 and served in the Philippines, Jordan, Greece, the U.S., the United Kingdom, Malaysia, Singapore and Saudi Arabia. He occupied several important posts before assuming charge as executive vice-president of Citibank in 1992.

In November 1999, Aziz was appointed Pakistan's Minister of Finance with charge of the departments of Finance, Economic Affairs, Statistics, Planning and Development, and Revenue. It was only in 2002 that Aziz joined the military-backed Muslim League, also known as the `king's party'. He, however, chose not to contest elections. He opted to become a member of the Senate.

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