SOUTH ASIA: Women Drivers

Wednesday, December 21, 2011
The Telegraph India
Southern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 

Predictions for a new year can be risky at the best of times. They can be disastrous when the crystal ball shows South Asia and clairvoyance deals with India-Pakistan diplomacy, or for that matter, with anything to do with South Asia's foreign policies.

But one thing that can be said with absolute certainty about 2012 is that diplomacy in India's immediate neighbourhood will have a gender dimension with results that will hopefully be productive, to say the least. Relations among and between India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the United States of America will all come under the decisive influence of women in the new year

In Washington's diplomatic cocktail circuit, a topic that imbibers never tire of discussing during this Christmas season leading to the new year is the effect of both Indian and Pakistani embassies in the US being headed by strong women. The US state department is already headed by a woman whose lasting legacy will be that she broke the glass ceiling in 2008 by edging almost to the American presidency. Circumstances ordained that she should, instead, become the chief diplomat in Foggy Bottom, the fountainhead of super-power foreign affairs.

Crystal-gazers along Beltway, Washington's equivalent of Delhi's Ring Road, are speculating that Hillary Clinton may switch places with the American vice-president, Joe Biden, on the 2012 Democratic ticket, but even if that happens, she may still remain America's chief diplomat for a year, rubbing shoulders with Nirupama Rao, the Indian ambassador to the US, and her soon-to-be Pakistani counterpart, Sherry Rehman. Whatever else may or may not happen, there is little doubt that the trio will leave a mark on the interaction between South Asia's most important nations. Hopefully it will complement the now celebrated camaraderie between the astute Indian permanent representative to the United Nations, Hardeep Singh Puri, and his Pakistani counterpart, the unconventional Abdullah Hussain Haroon, who comes from a media-owning family and does not fit the image of what one expects a diplomat to be.

Into this circle, another woman with very strong South Asian credentials will enter soon: Nancy Powell, who was chosen by the US president, Barack Obama, to be his new plenipotentiary in New Delhi. Powell will be a match for Rao, who is a veteran of South Asian diplomacy, having handled both China and Sri Lanka multiple times before becoming foreign secretary. Powell's experience in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal was what persuaded Obama to choose her for the post in New Delhi at a time when his administration has opted for a proactive and assertive foreign and security policy in Asia after many years of prevarication.

How effective Rehman will be in the US will depend on how she uses her strengths: she has the ear of her president, Asif Ali Zardari, and, equally important, Rehman is as much a maternal figure as Benazir Bhutto was to her son and the Pakistan People's Party chairman, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. She has a liberal image, born, among other things, out of her crusade to amend Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law and her courageous decision in March 2009 to resign as minister for information and broadcasting in protest against the Zardari government's decision to impose restrictions on the media. Most important, the army general headquarters in Rawalpindi does not appear to suffer from the allergy attack it came under every time Pakistan's generals came upon television or print images of her now discredited predecessor, Husain Haqqani.

But Rehman will have to get rid of an albatross: the perception that she is a refugee in the US, packed off by Zardari as an ambassador only because she is safer in Washington than in her hometown of Karachi, where her life is threatened by the very forces which recently assassinated the Punjab governor, Salman Taseer, and the federal minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, for their advocacy against the blasphemy law's harsh punishments.

But if her past is any guide, Rehman will overcome her handicaps. In any case, it is guaranteed that she will be a media star in America not only because she is one of the media, but also because she knows the right sound bites from her days as a television anchor, a critical asset in the US where many outcomes are media-driven.

Yet another woman — in fact, two — will be on what is growing into a small bandwagon of gender diplomacy and make a mark on external affairs in India's close neighbourhood in the new year. They are both from Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the prime minister, and Dipu Moni, the foreign minister, in the Awami League-led government.

The foreign minister scored a big first for Bangladesh recently when she persuaded members of a mostly South Asian regional organization with an exceptionally long-winded name — the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation — sensibly better known as BIMSTEC, to locate its secretariat in Dhaka. BIMSTEC is made up of India, Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

For a country which turned 40 this month, it will be the first international or inter-governmental organization to be headquartered in Bangladesh. Her more easygoing counterparts in the neighbourhood will soon have to sit up and take note that Dipu Moni is not letting grass grow under her feet.

After travelling to Nay Pyi Taw in January for the BIMSTEC ministerial meeting, the foreign minister persuaded Wajed to go to Myanmar this month. India should not under-estimate Wajed's and Dipu Moni's conviction that their country's relations with Myanmar should be on the same footing as ties with India.

The rationale in Dhaka is that like India, Myanmar is Bangladesh's closest neighbour. Two of Myanmar's provinces are contiguous to Bangladesh and they share a river boundary. Yet, to get to Yangon from Dhaka, it is necessary to first fly to a third country. Nor do they have surface or water links for movement between their countries. The two women in Dhaka are determined that this should change.

Dipu Moni knows America. Like India's S.M. Krishna, she studied in the US, where she took courses in medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and, like Nirupama Rao, she was at Harvard and did a course on negotiations and conflict resolution, which she could well fall back on in her present job. What is crucial, though, is that Dipu Moni, in a very American way, is telling Washington where to get off in its dealings with Dhaka.

Clinton has a bee in her bonnet about the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, whose chief, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Muhammad Yunus, was dismissed in March this year. When the foreign minister called on Clinton at the state department in October, the secretary of state ungraciously brought up Grameen Bank during their public interaction. Clinton also lectured Bangladesh about the need for media freedom and space for non-governmental organizations to operate unencumbered.

Dipu Moni chose not to get into a slanging match with Clinton, but she is now giving it back to the Americans in their own coin. Ten days ago, BBC's highly rated Radio 4 did a 30-minute programme called the “Blood Telegram”, a searing indictment of US perfidy during East Pakistan's struggle for freedom and how Washington was entirely on the side of the Pakistani oppressors and against a people whose human rights had been violated through crimes against humanity.

On Saturday, during celebrations at the Bangladesh embassy in Washington to mark the 40th anniversary of Bangladesh's victory against Pakistan, the ambassador, Akramul Qader, got signatories to the “Blood Telegram” and their survivors to speak about it. The telegram refers to a dissenting diplomatic cable signed by several American diplomats at the US consulate in East Pakistan, including the consul general, Archer K. Blood, accusing their own government of “moral bankruptcy” four decades ago as the Pakistan army resorted to mass killings. Clinton, it was obvious to everyone who recalled Blood's cable, has no right to lecture Dhaka on freedom of any kind.

This preview of South Asia's gender diplomacy in 2012 would be incomplete without mentioning Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan's foreign minister, and the West Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee. But so far Khar's claim to fame is more sartorial than diplomatic while the chief minister promises to blaze a new trail in India's foreign affairs, albeit vicariously.