Indian Decade

Hina Rabbani Khar’s Limits

Despite the excitement over Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, questions remain over her influence.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar's visit to New Delhi continues to be the subject of much commentary and fascination. The young minister’s obvious poise, charm and absence of rancour in public settings have been amply discussed. Many have inferred that her visit may even presage a possible thaw in Indo-Pakistani relations. Given the fraught history of Indo-Pakistani relations, it’s certainly tempting to arrive at such a conclusion.

However, to deliberately misquote the great Canadian media guru, Marshall McLuhan, the medium is not the message. Khar may have claimed in an interview that she enjoys as much autonomy as her Indian counterpart. Obviously, this was a deft diplomatic response to an awkward question in an open forum. However, it would require quite a stretch of the imagination to take her at her word. At a time when the president of Pakistan has been reduced to little more than a prisoner in his own well-guarded compound, it’s difficult, nay impossible, to believe that she enjoys the same cabinet stature as her Indian counterpart.

After all, when key officials from the US visit Pakistan to discuss vital foreign and security policy issues they make a bee line for the offices of Generals Ashfaq Kayani and Ahmad Pasha, and not to the storied foreign ministry. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs may well enjoy some notional autonomy under a civilian government. However, it’s more than apparent where the locus of power and authority can be found in Pakistan. Without the nod of the security establishment, Khar can’t proceed. 

In this context, it’s important to recall that even a discredited military establishment in the wake of Gen. Zia's mysterious death wielded considerable power. Even Benazir Bhutto's dramatic about face on the Kashmir question following the abrupt outbreak of the Kashmir insurgency couldn’t save her political skin. As her political woes mounted, the military's man, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, sent her packing. 

It may well be useful to continue the dialogue with Pakistan. However, India's policymakers and its political commentators would be wise not to become fixated on the aura that particular personalities might exude. Their presence in Pakistan’s political arena can often be fleeting.