Saturday, July 30, 2011

Glam slam for Pakistan's new minister

Ms Khar waving upon her arrival on Tuesday at Air Force Station in New Delhi, where she had flown to meet her Indian counterpart to hold peace talks - the first foreign minister-level discussions between the neighbours for a year. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
NEW DELHI: If deep political divisions could be healed with the wave of a well-manicured hand and a winning smile tastefully sporting the right lipstick, Ms Hina Rabbani Khar might find her new job as Pakistan's foreign minister easy indeed.

In fact, heads turned and jaws dropped the minute the 34-year-old beauty stepped off a plane here earlier this week for her first talks with her 79-year-old male Indian counterpart S.M. Krishna.

A headline over her photo in The Times of India, the country's biggest-selling English-language daily, read 'Pak Puts On Its Best Face'. The mass circulation Hindi newspaper Navbharat Times said India was 'sweating over model-like minister'.

Ms Khar certainly seemed to have left an impression on one of the world's most tense bilateral relations the week after she was promoted to take over from her predecessor Shah Mehmood Qureshi as Pakistan's first female foreign minister, and also its youngest.

Back home, the young woman has drawn inevitable comparisons to Ms Benazir Bhutto, the charismatic female prime minister who was assassinated while trying to regain power in 2007.

Like Ms Bhutto, she comes from one of Pakistan's most powerful political and landowning families. Her enormously wealthy clan has extensive farms in Punjab, the country's richest and most populous province.

Trademark headscarf notwithstanding, the married mother of two sons and a daughter, who herself owns the upscale Polo Lounge restaurant in Lahore, caused a stir after being photographed in tight jeans.

It was Ms Khar's father, prominent Pakistani politician Ghulam Noor Rabbani Khar, who persuaded her to give up her hotel job - she has a degree in hotel management from the University of Massachusetts - to enter politics.

She joined the Pakistan People's Party of Ms Bhutto in 2008 and was elected an MP, and rose to become junior minister of finance before being appointed junior foreign minister five months ago.

But questions have been raised about her competence for the top foreign affairs job, not to mention her commitment to it.

Political analyst Hasan Askari said: 'Pakistan faces a very difficult international environment, and at a time a foreign minister has been appointed who is a political lightweight with no experience in this field.'

The Economic Times reported that the former Pakistani law minister Iqbal Haider was even more disapproving.

'One is at a loss to understand the justification or merit in this appointment,' he says. 'This is far too important a portfolio, and one that requires much expertise in geopolitics and global affairs, to be put in the hands of a novice.'

After her first meeting with Mr Krishna, however, the beauty seemed to show she had brains too. She tapped into her own youth to describe relations between her country and India as in the midst of a 'mindset change'.

Ms Khar spoke of a new generation that saw the two countries' relationship differently from past generations, noting: 'It is our desire to make the dialogue process uninterrupted and uninterruptible.'

In London's The Independent newspaper, journalist John Elliott seemed to have been suitably impressed by Ms Khar. In his Riding the Elephant blog, he wrote that she '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'.

Yet people still seemed more taken with her fashion sense than her political views. The Mail Today, for instance, focused on her choice of outfits instead of her choice of words.

'The 34-year-old minister scored full marks on the fashion front when she was spotted at the Delhi airport in a monotone outfit of blue - the colour of the season,' it said.

'Tasteful accessories - Roberto Cavalli sunglasses, oversized Hermes Birkin bag and classic pearl jewellery - added a hint of glamour to her look.'

As the Mumbai Mirror tabloid put it, in a tongue-in-cheek reference to the history of wars between the countries and attacks by Pakistani militant groups on Indian soil as well as its own Bollywood beauties: 'Pak bomb lands in India'.

Indians also took to social media such as Twitter to add their two cents to the debate over Pakistan's new envoy. Many took exception to the intense scrutiny of her appearance and fashion accessories, particularly a luxury Hermes handbag, saying that male visitors to India were never subjected to similar analysis.

But one right-wing blogger, Pragmatic-d, replied: 'You don't carry a bag that is a serious fraction of your country's fiscal deficit and not expect it to be commented upon.'

Journalist and author Seema Goswami even saw a link between the monsoonal downpour that struck the Indian capital on Wednesday morning and the generally fawning coverage of the freshest face in international diplomacy.

'Even the Delhi skies are drooling,' she wrote.

With additional information from Agence France-Presse.