There’s a new smiling face in the tortured relationship between India and Pakistan. Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s 34-year old fashion-conscious and personable new foreign minister, made her first major public appearance yesterday (right) when she held constructive talks in Delhi with her Indian counterpart, S.M.Krishna.
Appointed Pakistan’s youngest foreign minister just a few days ago, Khar spoke of a “mindset change” in both countries, and of a new generation that saw the two countries’ relationship differently from past generations. “It is our desire to make the dialogue process uninterrupted and uninterruptible,” she said after meeting Krishna.
Whether or not Khar regarded Krishna , who at 79 is far more than twice her age, as a past generation, she had a point based on her comparative youth. The fractious relationship is run by people in both countries with long, sometimes life-long, memories of their three wars, one near war, near-nuclear confrontations, and multiple deaths in both countries mostly caused by Pakistan-generated terrorism.
Comments last night on television as Indian pundits tried to come to terms with a fresh and friendly face illustrated the generational problems. They talked of there being no real change in the Pakistan approach to India, especially over terrorism, and complained that India was going along with a more co-operative approach without enough in return from Pakistan. Behind these comments lies growing concern about Pakistan’s internal crises of Islamic terrorism, a collapsing economy, an ineffectual legal system and an army that has lost its élan following the killing of Osama bin Laden by US troops three months ago.
Khar was right when she said that people on both sides of the border have had enough of the confrontation and, as individuals, would like to move on. However it would only take a terrorist attack in India with clear links to Pakistan for the mood to change and for national anti-Pakistan feelings to supplant the more personal longing for peace.
Khar comes from an privileged feudal family background at the top of Pakistan’s society. Yesterday she was demurely dressed in white, with fashion touches that included a Hermes black Birkin handbag, a string of pearls and high black heeled shoes.
She is the daughter of a prominent Pakistani politician, Ghulam Noor Rabbani Khar, who persuaded her to abandon a hotel job to enter politics, and the niece of Ghulam Mustafa Khar, a former governor of the Pakistan province of Punjab. One of Mustafa Khar’s ex-wives, Tehmina Durrani, described her unhappy and traumatic married life in a controversial novel, My Feudal Lord, that lifted the lid on Pakistani society. A review in the Far East Economic Review said it exposed “sex, incest, child abuse, kidnapping, sado-masochism, political betrayal and treason”. Originally published in 1991 by Durrani herself, the book later became an international best seller.
With such a family background, it is not surprising that questions have been asked in Pakistan as well as India about how serious a politician Khar is, and which faction of Pakistan establishment she represents.
Was she was speaking yesterday just for politicians or was her positive approach supported by the Pakistan army, which wields ultimate political power? Some observers thought that Pakistan, whose relationship with the US and other countries has worsened recently, might have decided to court international support by taking a co-operative line with India.
It certainly seemed unlikely that a new minister with limited political experience would have spoken with the confidence and poise that Khar displayed yesterday. This gave her positive remarks added importance.
I suggested to her at a dinner hosted by Shahid Malik, Pakistan’s high commissioner in India, that it had been a “good day”, to which she replied that it must have been good if the media was willing to suggest so. When I asked her what would come next, she said that the significance of this round of talks would depend on progress made during the coming months before the next ministerial meeting is held early next year.
Various cross-border initiatives were agreed at the meeting with Krishna (seen together above – both photos by AFP). This followed useful talks between the two countries’ foreign secretaries the day before, and between their home ministers last weekend during a South Asia regional conference in Bhutan. This continues a five-month trend begun in February, again at a regional conference in Bhutan, which ended a stand-off imposed by India after terrorist attacks in Mumbai killed over 160 people in November 2008. It is significant that this week’s talks have taken place despite 22 people being killed in Mumbai blasts earlier this month (for which no group has claimed responsibility).
The day ended unexpectedly at the dinner with the events being put in context by Ram Jethmalani, 87, one of India’s top lawyers. In an inappropriate but accurate impromptu speech, he said that China was an “enemy” of both India and Pakistan. That was an oblique reference to China becoming Pakistan’s biggest and most influential provider of military and other support, the point being that Pakistan will never be able to make much progress with India unless China agrees. China is unlikely to agree however, because its basic approach is to destabilise India’s economic growth and international power wherever possible.
So major progress on peace between India and Pakistan is out of reach, but that still leaves room for Khar’s constructive day in Delhi to ease relationships and increase cross-border contacts.