ISLAMABAD - When Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi, the alleged mastermind of 2008 Mumbai attacks, was granted bail by a local court earlier this month, western diplomats reached out to two top Pakistani officials to express their dismay. One call was made, inevitably, to Sartaj Aziz, the national security adviser. The second phone call went to Ishaq Dar, the federal finance minister. On the face of it, Dar would seem an unlikely figure for such a diplomatic outreach but so much is the influence and power of the finance minister that he is practically involved in every firefighting effort and power-brokering exercise of the government.

Whenever Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has to constitute a committee, whether it deals with issues of finance or politics, Dar is the first and only choice to lead. Dar spearheaded the prickly political negotiations with Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf earlier in the summer when Imran Khan and his supporters staged a protest outside the parliament. Dar remained at the forefront of talks with political party heads after the Dec 16 attack on the Peshawar army school. Dar was present in Peshawar, alongside the premier, as political leaders huddled together in the immediate aftermath of the most brutal terror attack in the country’s history.

Ruling party leaders say Dar remains indispensable to the prime minister as he is not only the main architect of the government’s economic master-plan but has now emerged as the chief political negotiator of the ruling party. The rise of Dar on the political horizon has eclipsed the stature and diminished the utility of Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the interior minister, whose fortunes have been wavering in recent months as the government has stumbled from one crisis to another.

Dar proved his economic prowess when earlier this year, he managed to bring the exchange rate of dollar below Rs 100, making critics like Sheikh Rashid Ahmed eat a humble pie.

The finance minister is currently heading 60 committees, many of which are very important. He chairs the committee reviewing the situation on the import of LNG and the Spectrum Auction Advisory Committee for 3G/4G telecom licences. When the government decided to review the performance of officers posted abroad, Dar was asked to lead the scrutiny committee. He chairs the committee on allotments in New Secretariat Block. Dar also heads the committee reviewing the construction work at Bari Imam shrine in Islamabad. He also makes arrangements for the annual ‘urs’ at Data Darbar in Lahore. Dar even chairs the board of governors of Nawaz Sharif Kidney Hospital in Swat.

The wide tentacles of Dar have earned him many admirers and resulted in envy and resentment of some. Dar owes his prominence both to his ability and personality, according to interviews with his friends, acquaintances and government officials. Affable and warm, he manages to disarm even the harshest of critics.

“He is not stubborn, like some other party stalwarts. He is very flexible and accommodative,” said a PML-N leader. “This is the reason Ch Nisar and other leaders like Raja Zafarul Haq have slipped into the background.”

Even opposition politicians are not reluctant to express their confidence in the finance minister. Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the senior PTI leader, during one of his speeches to the protest sit-in had declared that the electoral reforms committee headed by Ishaq Dar can achieve the desired results.

“I would not comment on who is more able and who isn’t in PML-N but I must say that Ishaq Dar has a versatile nature, unlike others,” said Senator Zulfiqar Ali Khan Khosa. “I remember him as a technocrat but now he has learnt many things and acts like a seasoned politician.”

Dar has been running the finance ministry with the zeal of a reformer and stamina of a long-distance marathon runner. In the 38-member cabinet, Dar is the only minister who is seen working 16 to 18 hours a day. Media savvy and charming, he is not shy to attend to media queries about issues related to his ministry or of the government.

Critics say Dar, despite his warm demeanour and apparently accommodative overtures, remains fiercely territorial. Some party members have expressed frustration with Dar’s constant ‘interventions’ in other government ministries and departments. According to official sources, Enver Baig, the former chairman of Benazir Income Support Programme, threw in the towel due to irreconcilable differences with the finance minister over how to run the programme.

Dar has successfully leveraged his stronghold over the finance ministry and its pivotal role in connection with other ministries to strengthen himself. Most of the government projects get approval after a nod by the finance minister, officials say.

“Dar is the face of the prime minister,” said a senior politician. “Several issues of other political parties are resolved by the finance minister himself.”

“I think he should be given the title of deputy prime minister,” he said.