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The Hina Factor: Pakistan’s Wicked Ploy

By Farzana Versey

28 July, 2011

This is Asif Ali Zardari’s shrewdest move. Sending Hina Rabbani Khar on what amounts to be the equivalent of cricket diplomacy. This is not meant to be a sexist comment. She pretty much sailed through the India test by fire even as Pakistani intellectuals and the media have been rubbishing her ever since she was appointed to the post.

What are the dynamics here? It seems impossible to disregard the references to what she wore, how she looked and spoke, and it is a tad stupid for well-traveled Indians to comment on her designer labels as though they are not exposed to these. If anything, they look a bit awestruck even as they seemingly reduce her to superficials. The Times of India decided to tread carefully and mentioned our foreign Minister S.M.Krishna’s necktie, as though it were mandatory to give him equal sartorial time.

Zardari’s victory is that he knew the attention would be diverted from important issues although he had said that giving a 34-year-old with little experience the plum assignment was “a demonstration of the government's commitment to bring women into the mainstream of national life". There is no contradiction in his mind that the mainstream is the elite. He is sending out a few messages here: our societies are obsessed with the façade of economic progress, so let us dress the part even if we are dependent on foreign aid. A report had said that Richard Holbrooke was keen that she was given more responsibility. As foreign affairs minister she does not need to know what happens in the bastis. Does Rehman Malik, the Interior Minister, know? She has to convey Pakistan’s intentions, which is an easy job to do because India already knows it. As she said in a television interview, when questioned about her meeting with the Hurriyat leaders before her official itinerary, that this was the “stated position of Pakistan”.

Rather smartly, she also took the age issue head-on and said it was a matter of how one sees it. She has been an elected MP and served two terms as junior minister that helped her “learn on the job”. This sounds like a simple statement. Think about it, though. The head of our government is not elected; the woman running this country has no experience; the youth leader has been learning on the job for years now with the added advantage of dynasty. If we decide to look into our own backyard, Ms. Khar’s debut would appear like quite a masterstroke.

So, what is it about her that has riled Pakistanis? A former envoy, Zafar Hilaly, had been dismissive: "Asif Ali Zardari clearly does not want a heavyweight in the job. Hina will play the role and say her piece; but I don't think anyone is expecting anything significant from her."

He should know that no minister can do anything significant with India. We have been playing a carrot-and-stick game for years and will continue to do so. All paperwork, statements and dossiers will be cosmetic offers.

There are derisive put-downs that she is just a rich spoilt woman from a feudal family. This comes from the media, most of the owners and editors are rather well-off and have other businesses and most certainly give the time of day to social butterflies. In fact, some noted writers have made a career of carousing for the Chanel chicks. They seem to have forgotten that none of their prominent leaders has been a grassroots person. Zardari is himself a greenhorn with a shady history. What about Benazir Bhutto? What was her experience except to belong to a political family? Jemima Khan had dismissed her for her Hermes scarf, completely forgetting her own posh Goldsmith girl days. What is Imran Khan’s experience that some people think he’s be a great prime minister? One will not question the political experience of military leaders because they rule either by coup or from the coop.

Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy added some perspective but a bit harshly: “In a male dominated culture, she will be derided as no more than a pretty face. This would be true even if she was hard-as-nails and an exemplary negotiator. She will also be the object of jealousy within the PPP, where sycophants know that the boss decides and suck up to him. How forcefully Khar is able to present Pakistan's position as foreign minister remains to be seen. Although she was selected for her docility rather than bold originality, there could always be surprises."

How many Pakistanis, forget politicians, have expressed a position that is boldly original on matters of foreign policy? Any national psyche makes it incumbent for people to believe in certain aspects; much of it is inherited baggage. If she is to push Pakistan’s position, that too with regard to India, how can she be original?

Before her visit, a report had quoted an unnamed observer who said, “It is well-known that Pakistan's foreign policy is in the hands of agencies, not the foreign minister or even the President. Hina will have a tough time proving that she is not just a puppet. I don't think anyone is going to forget that her roots go back to the Musharraf administration."

This goes in her favour. Pervez Musharraf conducted the biggest PR exercise in India during the Agra Summit although it ended rather badly. He became a martyred hero, so the connection is her silent trump card. Again Zardari, who it is suspected could get close to Musharraf again in one of those opportunistic alliances that his father-in-law was so adept at, has played his cards well.

And for those who are talking about maintaining the status quo, that is what Indo-Pak relations are about. That or months of sulking. The outcome is, as expected, simplistic. India and Pakistan have agreed “on the need to strengthen cooperation on counter-terrorism including among relevant departments as well as agencies to bring those responsible for terror crimes to justice”. This is worth a yawn although it gives sufficient grist for several yarns.

The confidence building measures (CBMs) will be another Samjhauta – compromise. You take some missiles out of the way, but that does not prevent the threat perception and the real threat. It is not about whether either country decides to attack, but how much it feels the need to defend itself. This is never overtly at the government level. We have coined the phrase “non-state actors” just to make sure that foreign ministers can “agree” without having a clue as to what is happening behind their backs. The intelligence agencies have to deal with the headache, unless they are the headache.

The Line of Control will now be accessible for travel and trade. Is this a big leap forward when the economies of both sides of Kashmir are not really bullish? As regards travel, residents of Kashmir are anyway given visas more easily.

In general terms, trade opening acts as one more people-to-people initiative.

By far her entertaining the Hurriyat leaders at the Pakistani High Commission before meeting our foreign minister while deemed undiplomatic and a kick to protocol was her real moment. Tutored she was, but she made it seem like the most natural thing to do. India and Pakistan are just two nations. Emphasise Kashmir and you sit on the TNT bomb. To keep it simmering has proved to be the most lucrative aspect of Indo-Pak politics. CBMs are just loose change.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based columnist. She can be reached at http://www.farzana-versey.blogspot.com/




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