The meeting of Indo Pakistan Foreign Secretaries on sidelines of SAARC meet in Thimpu in the beginning of February raised hopes of a rapprochement with a meeting of the Foreign Ministers scheduled before July. However a vacuum in the Pakistan Foreign Ministry with removal of Mr Qureshi and spokesman Abdul Basit in quick succession in the wake of the differences over apprehension of US citizen Mr Raymond Davis is set to upset the calculations for resumption of dialogue for Mr Qureshi’s departure has left a gap.
The first indications of Mr Qureshi’s sidelining came during the swearing in ceremony of the new ministry in Pakistan. Forced by the IMF to reduce size of the ministry as well as after pressure from the opposition particularly the PML N Chief Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s Prime Minister sought resignation of the Ministry and announced a smaller cabinet with 20 ministers in the first place. The announcement of the portfolios of the new cabinet was in line with expectations as the key ministers such as defence and interior were expected to be retained. The PPP government is also known generally to be packed with the ministers who are core loyalist of the Bhutto family and to that extent those who are in power owe their allegiance as much to Mr Zardari as to their own political standing. It should also be noted that the charges of corruption in the past hanging against some of the ministers such as the Interior Minister Mr Malik did not stood in the way of their being nominated to the ministerial position again.
What came as a surprise to many was non allotment of portfolio of Foreign Minister to the former incumbent Qureshi. Reports indicated that Qureshi offered other ministries refused to accept the same and a chair placed for him during the oath taking was also removed from the dais indicating some last minute push and pull. The former foreign minister went out to town claiming that he had been removed due to his strong refusal to release Mr Raymond Davis despite pressure by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. While there may be some truth to this assertion given that there has been intense pressure from the US to release Mr Davis on the plea of his having diplomatic immunity, Mr Qureshi did not play ball.
Qureshi was also seen to have overplayed his cards in many respects and was at one time close to the US administration. He is accused by India of derailing talks with India in July 2010. He was also seen by many as a rival to the Prime Minister Mr Geelani and has the same support base in Multan. The only appointee to the Foreign Ministry in the new portfolios is Ms Hina Rabbani Khar who also hails from Multan with the same power base. She is also seen as a Musharraf loyalist having been a part of the PML Q earlier.
In another related move Foreign Office Spokesman Abdul Basit who was very strident on the issue of release and diplomatic immunity to Mr Raymond Davis was replaced with Tehmina Janjua reportedly on his own wish. The replacement of Mr Basit by Tehmina Janjua as the foreign office spokesperson completed the full circle of fall out of differences with the US on the Raymond Davis case. These are likely to put the Pakistani foreign office in some quandary and there would be some step back over a period for it is unlikely that Mr Qureshi after he has publicly come out in the open against the government would be brought back especially so as he is continuing to be critical of the government position even though it has now been decided that the Davis case will be decided by the Pakistani courts.
This will be a concern in relation to India Pakistan talks. While State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Hina Rabbani Khar is a management graduate of University of Massachusetts, she is at heart a businesswoman rather than a foreign policy specialist. Thus her initiation into the Foreign ministry is unlikely to add value in the immediate term. Lack of a senior foreign minister thus would impact the progress made at Thimpu.
At SAARC Foreign Ministers meet it was decided that structured talks on various issues of contention between the two countries will be started soon. The increase in the level of interaction between the Pakistani and Indian side to engage on Siachen and Sir Creek while also addressing the core ones as terrorism was welcome. While no big ticket announcement was expected there was possibly some fatigue on both sides for not being able to engage each other which resulted in the decision to commence talks.
A meeting of the two Foreign Ministers was thus expected to take place after adequate ground work had gone in likely in June or July. Now that the Pakistani foreign office is without a head, how the talks initiative will manifest remains to be seen. Ironically both Ms Khar and Janjua are providing the feminine face to Pakistan’s diplomacy that alone may not be enough to restart the complex dialogue process with India even though Ms Nirupama Rao on the Indian side may provide them some company.