Though Hina Rabbani Khar is in the saddle, low-key Fatemi likely to call the shots

THE excitement in India over the appointment of Hina Rabbani Khar as Pakistan’s minister of state for foreign affairs belies the capacity of politicians in the new government of PM Shehbaz Sharif to deliver on foreign policy.

This is not about the hackneyed argument that the Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi has the divine right to dealings with India. Khar was handicapped as a minister in the foreign office even before she was allotted her portfolio. As soon as the government was sworn in, Nawaz Sharif got his younger brother, the PM, to appoint Syed Tariq Fatemi as the man who will conceptualise and run Pakistan’s foreign policy in the 16 months which remain of the current National Assembly – and of the new government.

India policy has proved to be the graveyard of many Pakistanis in diplomacy, be it as foreign minister or adviser.

In doing so, the elder Sharif pre-empted the chances of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari gaining meaningful control of the levers of his country’s external affairs in the event that he becomes foreign minister — a distinct possibility.

Fatemi is a consummate diplomat who has the trust of the Sharif family — Nawaz, his influential daughter Maryam, Shehbaz and his son Hamza, who has been elected to the second most powerful office in the land, namely, CM of Punjab. Fatemi became the apple of Nawaz’s eye when he made an effective case as a career diplomat for Pakistan’s nuclear tests — which followed India’s — at the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1998. Soon, the then PM Nawaz superseded several other civil servants to make Fatemi a federal secretary coinciding with Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s historic bus trip to Lahore.

Fatemi was by Nawaz’s side when Gen Pervez Musharraf overthrew his government in the aftermath of the Kargil war. It was no surprise, therefore, that upon his retirement from the foreign service, Fatemi joined the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) as the party’s foreign policy adviser. The Sharif family’s trusted diplomatic trouble shooter for almost a quarter century is now in the PMO, back in his old job as special assistant on foreign affairs. During Nawaz’s last tenure as head of government from 2013, he had inducted Fatemi into his office.

Neither Zardari junior nor Khar enjoy such trust of the new PM. On the contrary, the Bhuttos are long-time rivals of the Sharif family. That they came together to unseat Imran Khan from prime ministership does not mean their alliance of convenience will last until the next election in August 2023 or beyond. Khar is a lightweight, who is in the Cabinet for reasons other than political, if chatter in Islamabad is to be believed.

Therefore, it is the low-key, but efficient and experienced Fatemi, who will be conniving against India in the coming months: not Khar, who is known more for her style than substance. Or for that matter Zardari, whose political pedigree is unmatched in the Indian Government. However, Zardari totally lacks experience either in diplomacy or in statecraft.

What India can expect from the new dispensation is a two-pronged approach. While Fatemi tries to worst India in every way, a chic Khar and a flamboyant Zardari will try to reset the India-Pakistan agenda in New Delhi. Since Modi became PM, Pakistan has lost its lobby in New Delhi, which once heavily influenced attitudes towards Islamabad. A group of important Indians born before Partition in what is now Pakistan, who famously walked to the Wagah border every year lighting candles on August 14 to promote harmony, is now mostly dead. The yearnings promoted by such rituals have largely died with them.

A seven-year clampdown on reciprocal people-to-people engagement has robbed Pakistan of goodwill promoted in India through its music, theatre, literature and the arts. The same could arguably be said of friendliness towards India on the other side, but Pakistan exploited such goodwill much more astutely than India. Modi’s attempts to discredit and cast into irrelevance the ‘Khan Market gang’ damaged the Pakistan lobby somewhat: several advocates of various cross-border causes were members of this amorphous ‘gang’.

It will be Khar’s mission to revive the Pakistan lobby in New Delhi. Judging by Indian media reaction to her new charge, she has this job cut out for her. It will be a sad reflection on public discourse in this country if anything she says or does about India in the coming weeks and months is front-page news or prime-time headlines, even if it has zero substance.

If Zardari becomes foreign minister, he will emulate his mother in fashioning his public image in India. Benazir Bhutto has been a big hit in India from the time her father brought her along for the Simla peace talks in 1972. She was only a teenager then. India’s fascination for Benazir continued through the years when she and Rajiv Gandhi were both PMs. Even when their ‘my-mummy-your-daddy’ diplomacy proved to be fruitless, allure for Benazir among Indians was undiminished. Zardari is 33 years old. Such young men and women make people curious about them.

India policy has proved to be the graveyard of many Pakistanis in diplomacy, be it as foreign minister or diplomatic adviser. Gohar Ayub, son of Field Marshal Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military dictator, is one example. He was ousted in less than 16 months from that portfolio after his boorish behaviour at the first Vajpayee-Nawaz summit in Colombo.

Sartaj Aziz, who succeeded Gohar, was discredited when he came to New Delhi on a peace mission during the Kargil conflict. He was foreign minister for 14 months during that stint. Shah Mehmood Qureshi survived in politics so long only by party-hopping. He has been in and out of all major political parties in Pakistan.

Tailpiece: Khar is a quick learner and cleverly adaptive. Wiser by the experience of predecessors, she was respectful, even gushing, in dealings with the then External Affairs Minister SM Krishna.