Ex-finance minister Sartaj Aziz’s passing away at 94 has touched the hearts of those who watched him rise as an economist. Born in 1929, he secured a Master’s degree in Economics from Punjab University and another in Development Economics from Harvard University. He was twice-elected to the Senate on the PMLN’s ticket in the 1980s and early 1990s, serving as finance minister during the 1990s cabinet of then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Subsequently, he was appointed to the posts of Adviser for Foreign Affairs and National Security.
As finance minister, Aziz led reforms and policies aimed at stabilizing Pakistan’s economy, including tax reforms, fiscal discipline, privatization of state-owned enterprises, and economic liberalization. He focused on developing infrastructure and social sectors while facing challenges such as controlling inflation, with his tenure seeing a period of significant economic growth.
During his stint in the foreign ministry from 1998-1999, Aziz played a key role in navigating Pakistan’s foreign policy during a challenging period; and again as adviser on foreign policy and national security from 2013-2017. The first marked the period of fallout after Pakistan’s nuclear tests and he was tasked with preparing Pakistan’s position to “normalize” relations with India. In his second tenure, he focused on counterterrorism strategies and regional cooperation. Unfortunately, he was denied a party ticket in 2018 because he was thought to have grown critical of Nawaz Sharif, as expressed in his book Between Dreams and Realities.
It is worth noting that as finance minister, Aziz focused on agricultural development as means of “poverty-reduction, mitigation of rural-urban income inequality, contribution to domestic industrialization and services and absorption of new entrants to the job market.” He also played a leadership role in setting up the International Fund for Agriculture Development, and was instrumental in producing a strategy paper on agricultural development.
Lacking traditional political roots, Aziz’s frank and honest appraisal of his government and leadership cost him the promised position of President of Pakistan. Unlike the average Pakistani politician eager to serve as a minister, he was a man of high integrity, able to display honesty and integrity in whatever assignment he was entrusted. This, unsurprisingly, won him no favors among his colleagues.
Writing in daily Dawn in 2018, he noted: “The political process in Pakistan has suffered enormously from the lack of a culture of tolerance and the important democratic tradition of respecting dissent. This has led to a highly polarized and personalized pattern of politics and the recurrent breakdown of the democratic process. Relations between the government and the opposition in the recent past have been so tense that their members did not even attend one another’s social functions. There was also visible discrimination against members of the opposition in the allocation of development funds and other privileges.”