Aug 13, 2011

Strengthening institutes

By Ismail Khan

Pinnacled to the charts of a celebrity, Ms Hina Rabbani Khar was an instant hit with the Indian media. As if the Pakistani media had just got caught eye of her hidden glamour, it too flashed the glitz of the political icon. From the suave dresses she carried on to the pricey accessories she held, Ms Khar’s style kept the gossip circles activated.

Once back, she was critically evaluated for her job. ‘Ok, fine, she is a fresh face but does she have any fresh thought for a ‘change’ to the external rot?’ – is being asked.

While critique on her performance bursts out of the hype floated earlier, her job is nonetheless tough. As the commentary appearing in the media wants her to be, her challenge will come in balancing the expectation reflecting from her social symbolism against the position a state’s security line – good or bad – is long being treated.

First, the symbolism which glued the media to her very demeanour: at the young age of 34, Ms Khar is Pakistan’s only female and the world’s youngest foreign minister. Both, her gender and age, has the potential of gelling with those Pakistanis who come under the same bracket – that is the young and the women of the country.

It is not to say that her elevation was primarily factored to facilitate women or the young men to the top; certainly her feudal background matters much in Pakistan’s political landscape – a reality that has in any case earned her ticket to politics. However, to discard somebody’s performance or representation, as we often do in women’s cases by associating them as ‘male surrogates’, is unjust to the job they may potentially undertake. For, did Benazir Bhutto and present US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, not inspire women down the line, despite both of them enjoying access to the power corridors? It is in this spirit that Khar’s appointment should be appreciated, if not evaluated.

Similarly, in a country where the young population constitutes the majority of the population, Khar is certainly going to beam many a young face. Those who are making fun of her inexperience are only good at earning applause on TV shows – that’s it; it is advisable for them to engage constructively on the thematic front, if they are informed about it.

That said, many might ask if symbolism is the case, what’s the point of her appointment as foreign minister – why not appoint her as the youth minister? While the point is valid to an extent, a task for Khar is open up space in Pakistan’s diplomatic engagement that absorbs the potential of the women and youth of Pakistan. Notwithstanding the debate on the incongruity between domestic and international affairs, what is obvious is that the Khar-optimist wants her to bridge it. Many other are eager to point out the societal backlash of exercising some instruments of foreign policy. Whether or not the two can be compared is not the point.

For one, the youth bulge of Pakistan is repeatedly being referred to as ‘untapped resource’ which can go either way. Lack of opportunities for them is diverting a greater chunk of human resources away from pooling in the economic productivity of the state.

That is it. Now, consider this: immediately after assumption of charge, Ms Khar spoke of the fear of India hegemony. The Khar-optimists seemed to be surprised, but here was the reality check which they have already known.

For one, what constitutes change remains a debate in Pakistan. Realistically speaking, waiting on for any change is not an individual’s task. Arguably, therefore, it will be much better for her to revive the institutes responsible for framing foreign policy and enhancing the capacity of policy elites who have to take decision on foreign affairs.

Needless to say, where everything else fails, consensus works. It would not be wrong to argue that part of the success behind the Swat operation was the domestic consensus worked before the operation. For much part of our polity, there was polarisation within the society over whether and how to take action against the militants. Even the military is used to saying it cannot send its boys to an adventure, to be booed down by the society upon their return.

Thus, how much of the consensus gets formed in the future is the way to go. Specifically, one must mention the role of parliament’s subcommittees on foreign affairs whose performance, as documented recently by Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), is dismal. As their records show, “more than half of the members did not attend committee meetings with average attendance of members at 38%.”

The strength of the subcommittee is its diverse membership including top leadership of political forces. In a country where politicians have earned a stigma ‘manipulating’ violence, the engagements of such a committee will send strong signals down the line – that of ownership of the policies, which may or may not change. Without their involvement, everything is thrown in the garage of the ruling party or the military. Khar certainly can bring it on.

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