It will be fair to say that Hina Rabbani Khar has been simultaneously inhabiting seemingly contradictory worlds. She hails from a feudal family in the conservative district of Muzaffargarh but was educated in some of the most prestigious institutions and became a symbol of women empowerment in Pakistan. She seamlessly moved from being a cabinet member in the government of General Pervez Musharraf to becoming one of the most prominent ministers under President Asif Ali Zardari. She also transitioned from being perhaps one of the most firm and eloquent defenders of military rule to a staunch supporter of civilian supremacy, castigating the military for many of the crises that haunt our present.
Traversing such contradictions is a challenge, if not a necessity, for individuals desiring to enter the murky world of high politics in Pakistan. Hina has dealt with it successfully. She has been able to formulate an innovative and independent foreign policy when she served as Pakistan’s foreign minister in 2011-13. She pushed for a ‘regional pivot’ strategy which entailed improving relations with neighbouring countries, such as India and Afghanistan, and reducing dependence on the United States. She won the admiration of policy experts for her bold positions and became a media icon for her ability to charm audiences around the globe. Yet, it remains open to question if she was able to convince or overpower those who have historically viewed our neighbouring countries with suspicion.
Below are the excerpts of a recent interview with Hina in Lahore:
Ammar Ali Jan. It is rare for a woman from Muzaffargarh to not only be a public figure but also stand out in politics. How would you describe your own journey?
Hina Rabbani Khar. It is easy to say that it was terribly difficult and I was able to do all this because of my personal strength. [In reality] it was not like that. It has to do entirely with how my parents wanted me to grow up.
I come from a very conservative family and shared a large household with four sisters. We actually had a lot of fuss within the family — the fuss to be educated and being allowed to go abroad for education. And everybody chose a different field.
I was the only one who chose to go for a masters. I was also the only girl in the family who played polo. It is generally a male-dominated sport in Pakistan, but my father allowed me to play it even though he feared for my life. He would come [to see me play] and not be able to watch me.
In the same way, it is not common to allow young girls to go for long trekking trips but I have gone to the base camp of K2, Nanga Parbat and Rakaposhi on long trips, lasting for more than 20 days. When I went on those trips, most parents would not allow that but things have changed since then.
I started doing treks after I graduated from LUMS [Lahore University of Management Sciences] in 1999. I did them diligently every year. My parents were fine with that.
So I grew up in a household where I was never made to feel that I was a girl or where I experienced any gender bias. I give a lot of credit to my parents. I was never trained to look pretty and be just a piece ready to get married.
[My sisters and I] all grew up to be very different people with a sound sense of individuality. Everybody was allowed to go their own way. The more I grew up, the more I admired and respected my parents for the modern upbringing they gave us.
Jan. We see women from certain families with rural backgrounds joining public life. Do you think it is translating into more female presence and empowerment at the grass-roots level? For example, if we have a female foreign minister from Muzaffargarh, does that change anything for women living there as well?
Hina. I don’t think it has much impact but obviously it gives people something to break the glass ceiling with and it [may help them realise] that there is no end to possibilities [for them].
I, however, think there is an overall change that is bigger than what we can understand sitting in Lahore. I went to schools in [small Muzaffargarh towns such as] Mehmood Kot and Sanawan and saw little girls performing on stage with confidence. I was surprised. It was almost the same level of confidence you would see at primary schools here in Lahore.
But there are two parallel worlds in Pakistan. You have girls who are strangulated in terms of the possibilities they have or the access they have to opportunities. People can still be very conservative. For instance, they can choose not to send girls to school. But then there are many [other things] happening on the ground.
Decades ago, a boys school in our village was almost closed. There was no demand for education there. We used to spend a quarter of a year in our village at the time. My mother used to be there as well. She developed a dream to open a school for girls. She, however, was told that it was not going to happen because of the lack of demand from the local community which was very conservative. Nobody would send girls to school.
She nevertheless started a school for about 50 girls. Literally two years into this and people were requesting to get their child admitted into our school because they were getting free and quality education. Today, after 15 years, 250 girls study there. They are provided with a transport facility. We provide them almost everything.
And the commitment the children have shown can in no way be compared to the commitment we have shown. The first child gets picked up at 5:00 am by the transport facility and the last one gets dropped home at 5:00 pm because the distances are huge. Their commitment is commendable.
Jan. Is there any anxiety within your family that people will be raising questions about your privileged status once they get educated?
Hina. Sitting here, we make a general assessment that rural poor are far less empowered than the urban poor. That is not the case. This idea that people can make them do work without paying them is not true. People employed at my farm have the same type of assertive behaviour – or lack thereof – as I experience while running my business in Lahore. I do not see much difference.
Obviously people over there lack basic education but that is also changing. When my father managed our farm, his workforce was completely illiterate. But my sister and my brother are managing the family farm now and their employees are educated at least up to the primary level. Our children perhaps will deal with the people who have at least done matriculation. Things are changing and evolving faster than we think they are.
Jan. Most people who graduate from a business school end up in the corporate world. How did you end up becoming a political figure?
Hina. It is all really by chance. My father could not contest the 2002 general election because of the Musharraf-era condition for election candidates to be graduates. I had just returned home after having done my masters. My father asked me to contest the polls in his place and I did.
I was only 25 then, barely above the minimum age requirement for an election candidate, so my father continued to manage local politics. He gave me the leeway to concentrate on the affairs in Islamabad.
My father and I had a very good working relationship within the household. Even in politics, it worked really well for two [parliamentary] terms because he was available in Muzaffargarh much more than he could have been [if he was sitting in the National Assembly in Islamabad]. And I was there in Islamabad, ensuring that development work was done in my constituency.
There were a number of people in the National Assembly from an educated, younger lot — Omar Ayub, Amin Aslam, Khusro Bakhtyar, myself. Nobody told us that we had been selected for some training [in statecraft] but people would pick us and give us more assignments than they gave to our peers. We were able to use that to our advantage.
I was aggressively trained for serious work at LUMS so when I became parliamentary secretary for economic affairs, I typically used to spend more hours working than generally expected from bureaucrats. That gave me space. You have to earn respect wherever you are — be it a corporate organisation or a political setup or a ministry. I do not think people disregard your gender entirely and, perhaps, you have to work harder than men [to be taken seriously].
I found that it always helped to enter a meeting prepared. If you knew the crises as much as anyone else did, that really helped. If you were able to brief those who had come to a meeting to brief you, they would be better prepared in the next meeting to answer your queries.
Jan. There was a lot of criticism of Musharraf’s economic policy which relied heavily on foreign donors. You, however, have defended that policy as late as 2007. Will you defend it even now?
Hina. There was a lot of euphoria over Pakistan’s economic performance at the time. We were coming out [of the economic fallout] of 9/11; Pakistan had been given a very different type of assistance by the world.
The assistance that the PPP [Pakistan Peoples Party] government [received] was in no way close to the support that the IFIs [International Financial Institutions] such as ADB [Asian Development Bank] and the World Bank gave during Musharraf’s time. The PPP government did receive a package from the IMF [International Monetary Fund] but the support that Pakistan had received on the economic front during Musharraf’s tenure was much higher in comparison.
Now that I am able to look back at that time, I realise that the United States and its corollaries are much more supportive of dictatorial regimes than they are of political regimes. That is what – fortunately or unfortunately – happened as we transitioned from Musharraf to the PPP government.
Working in the Musharraf government was almost like working in the corporate sector. Cabinet meetings were conducted in a corporate environment. It was very simple work in some ways. Parliament would ratify whatever the cabinet proposed.
When I compare it to working with the PPP government, it seems that working with a political government is so much tougher. To get anything done requires a lot of political skills. There were always a lot of hurdles in any policy being approved and implemented. There were very few hurdles in the previous era. On the surface, it looks like all this depends upon the approach a government adopts but, obviously, this leaves many questions unanswered.
Jan. With all the money that came into Pakistan during Musharraf’s time, do you think there could have been a more long-term economic policy to sustain the gains? Do you think there were mistakes made?
Hina. Of course, many mistakes were made. For instance, the power crisis was not taken seriously. That was the biggest mistake ever. Musharraf could have built any dams he wished. He, instead, decided to work on a dam literally in the last leg of his government. The things that actually concerned the longevity, efficiency and productivity of the industry were brutally ignored. It was a bad policy.
There was, of course, that euphoria surrounding things like easy access to credit which allowed many people to get goodies including cars on lease. That created an apparent boom in the economy but, as we saw, it was indeed very short-lived.
Jan. After the global financial crisis in 2008, foreign assistance just dried up. How well did PPP respond to it?
Hina. Frankly speaking, PPP responded as well as was possible compared to how the economic situation is being managed now. I have a huge problem with anyone who wants to manage the balance sheets rather than managing the economy.
This government has been uniquely positioned since it had the same finance minister Ishaq Dar [compared to the PPP government that changed many finance ministers]. It has been managing the books rather well but has been holding back the productive sectors of the economy like no other government has. Industries have been closing down. Agriculture is dwindling. It has not performed well in the last five years. Export growth has gone down. There has been no policy direction whatsoever.
PPP was given a very difficult economic environment as oil prices ranged anywhere between 100 US dollars and 120 US dollars per barrel at the time. This government has been buying oil at 40 US dollars per barrel. Did they charge us any less? Did they make electricity any cheaper?
They also have this unique policy of holding back money from the private sector. Any government’s job is to create financing for the private sector but they have been holding back even tax refunds. They have been spindling away all the liquidity that existed in the market by excessively borrowing from banks. The government has been the biggest borrower.
Their economic performance shows that they have done relatively badly in a rather easy time. World economy has been relatively stable in recent years and credit has been available at cheaper rates.
They also do not have a Supreme Court like the one we had in our times. They have a Supreme Court that is giving them political problems but economically it is not giving them any trouble. Whatever decision we took in the Executive Committee of the Cabinet, it was challenged at the Supreme Court. If it was not challenged, a suo motu notice would be taken about it.
There was a well thought-out plan to sabotage any economic decision that our government was trying to make — whether it was the import of LNG [Liquefied Natural Gas] or power sector reforms. But the current government has been able to do it all at quite a fast speed.
Jan. Was your decision to switch to PPP informed by ideological conviction and political transformation or was it more based on power politics?
Hina. I don’t think you could call it power politics. A lot of things happen in politics by chance. If anyone sets out to become something within political setup, in my experience, they are doomed to fail because politics that is happening now is [based on] chance, opportunity and luck. My political life is in some way a testimony to that — to take whatever opportunity comes your way but not run crazily after anything.
Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam (PMLQ), the party [on whose ticket] I contested election in 2002, wanted me to stand for a seat reserved for a woman [in 2008 polls]. They wanted to award the ticket for my home constituency to someone else. My father and I were very clear that this was not the course of action that we wanted to take. We would rather fight our way through an election and get popular credibility.
[My father’s] politics is completely based on local reality. To be in the National Assembly and to get benefits of being a member of it was not what we were after. When that happened, it was a big wake up call. To remain associated to that party was out of question after that.
Whatever God sends your way is the best. I am a big believer in that. I will not take credit for leaving PMLQ [on ideological grounds] but when I had that option because of the PMLQ behaviour then I think it became an ideological decision [because of the party I next joined].
Jan. Do you think politicians should not cross certain red lines — for example, working for a military dictatorship or being in a party whose ideology differs from their ideological point of view?
Hina. Absolutely. I am a very strong believer that this country has suffered because of the lack of a continued democratic process. No matter how flawed, no matter how chaotic, democracy has kept this country from unravelling. I have become a great believer in the collective wisdom of people. These [200 million or so] people are smart. They know what is best for them.
To shrug it all away, to think that someone can fix it [is a wrong idea]. I believe that attempts at fixing things always unfixes them further whether you look at it locally or in the broader global context. For example, fixing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan has actually unfixed a lot of things in this region. We are still suffering from the consequences of that.
In Pakistan, too, the urge to fix things every 10 years actually unfix them more. When you look at the growth of institutions in Pakistan, their potential has been really curtailed because of the constant military interventions. If you look at the water and power sector, those who have worked with the World Bank back in the 1960s and the 1970s will tell you that they always went to Wapda [Water and Power Development Authority] as well as the Ministry of Water and Power whenever they needed advice. People at these institutions had a lot of knowledge, a lot of skills. Then, like everything else, Wapda came to be run by generals who had no training for running these things.
Parliament embodies hundreds of institutions that together form the executive — whether it is the social sector ministry, the water and power ministry or the finance ministry. When these entities are run by the military, their evolution is stunted. So this red line should never have been crossed since 1947.
If military interventions had not happened in Pakistan, we would have been a different place altogether. The penchant for fixing this country by the elements that are not assigned the job constitutionally to fix it, or are not trained institutionally to fix it, has only created a lot of avoidable trouble and has changed the direction of the country. If we are not doing well as a country, the blame lies with the constant military interventions in the political process.
This was originally published in Herald's April 2018 issue. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.