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The Hina factor in India-Pakistan talks

By Manish Chand, IANS,

New Delhi : When 34-year-old Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s youngest and first woman foreign minister, holds talks with her Indian counterpart S.M. Krishna, 45 years her senior, the world will be watching to see how she handles her first major diplomatic outing and navigates the troubled waters of the India-Pakistan relationship.

Khar touched down here in a special flight Tuesday amid intense interest. Will her relative youth and inexperience bring a whiff of freshness to the perennially troubled relationship between the two neighbours? Or will the young foreign minister, fond of polo and trekking, be able to hold her own in the talks that come barely a week after her appointment was formalised?

The jury is out on that one.

Amid widespread cynicism in Pakistan’s predominantly patriarchal establishment, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari justified her appointment, saying it would “send positive signals about the soft image of Pakistan”.

Khar, however, remains somewhat of a mystery in India. Curiosity has been piqued by her unusual background that blends the feudal and the modern.

A postgraduate in hospitality and tourism from the University of Massachusetts, Khar comes from a wealthy feudal family in southern Punjab and owns Lahore’s posh Polo Lounge, a haunt of the rich and the powerful. Her father is a large landowner from Muzaffargarh. Her uncle Ghulam Mustafa Kar was the subject of “My Feudal Lord”, a biting account of patriarchal society in Pakistan penned by his fifth wife Tehmina Durrani.

Analysts here are sceptical on whether Khar can make a real difference to the course of the revived peace process between India and Pakistan.

Satish Chandra, a former deputy national security adviser and a former envoy to Islamabad, says Khar’s youth won’t be a disadvantage. On the contrary, she could provide an image advantage to Pakistan, Chandra told IANS.

“It will be a good photo-op, with an attractive young minister,” he said. He added that given Pakistan’s military-dominated establishment it does not matter who is the foreign minister of Pakistan.

“The shots are being called by the army, and when it comes to India-Pakistan relations, the script is always cleared by the army,” said Chandra.

Agreed G. Parthasarathy, a former high commissioner to Pakistan. “It’s good for Pakistan to have a young, attractive lady to represent Pakistan in bad times when that country is being increasingly seen as an epicentre of terrorism.”

“Having entered politics through the military, she is likely to be influenced by the military which calls the shots on India-Pakistan relations,” Parthasarathy told IANS.

Khar entered politics in 2002 and became a member of national assembly of the PML-Q party, affiliated with then Pakistan president Gen Pervez Musharraf.

She joined the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) ahead of the February 2008 general election and was made minister of state for economic affairs by the Zardari government in 2008.

Her rise has been meteoric since, propelled by favourable circumstances. Barely four days after then foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s removal, she was named minister of state for foreign affairs.

Khar has become Pakistan’s 26th foreign minister at a time when her country is suffering perhaps the worst image crisis and is being repeatedly singled out as a patron for terrorists and jihadists.

On the India front, there is, however, a window of opportunity. If her country can sustain the revived peace process, Khar, too, will share the credit. For now, the expectations are minimal, and that may well be Khar’s big advantage in a country where over 67 percent of the population is below 30.

(Manish Chand can be contacted at [email protected])