Pakistan's foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi was one of the casualties of Friday's cabinet reshuffle as not only lost his portfolio but also refused to take another ministry that was offered to him by the Prime Minister.
Hina Rabbani Khar, previously state minister for finance has been given the charge of state minister for foreign affairs. Observers say that the door remains open for the appointment of a foreign minister in the second round of cabinet appointments expected to take place shortly.
The new minister of state for foreign affairs, Hina Rabbani Khar, also comes from Multan - where both Qureshi and Prime Minister Gilani hail from, and is a 34 year old management sciences major. She is seen as a novice in foreign affairs. The expectation is that a senior member will be brought in to be foreign minister. Hina Rabbani Khar is also a rival of the former foreign affairs minister.
New Delhi feels that such “internal changes” will not have much impact on the resumption of the dialogue between the two countries as “all stake-holders” in Pakistan are on board for the dialogue process, which is an expression of “political will” from both sides.
However, the in New Delhi’s calculations Qureshi was to stay as the foreign minister and they did factor in that in the run-up to the foreign secretary level talks.
Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who has been serving as the country's foreign minister since 2008 and has been at the centre of talks with India, is also seen as a political rival to Prime Minister Gilani, may well been in the running. He may have been sidelined in the cabinet because of his rising profile internationally, analysts added.
On Friday, in the first phase of the cabinet reshuffle and downsizing, 22 cabinet members took oath of office. There were only 4 new faces while the rest were former cabinet ministers who only saw a change in portfolio. Key minister and Zardari aide, interior minister Rehman Malik, however, retained his portfolio. Most Zardari loyalists have been retained, said observers.
Qureshi was expected to take oath as minister for food and agriculture but he refused to come in for the swearing in ceremony. Amir Ilyas Rana, an Islamabad based journalist, said that he had asked Prime Minister Gilani why Qureshi was absent and was told that the change had been made at the presidency.
Rana said that Shah Mehmood Qureshi may have been removed also because he was possibly Pakistan's most pro-American minister. "He argued a lot in favour of American actions and policies," said Rana. Others, however, hinted that it may have been the political rivalry between the Prime Minister and his foreign affairs minister that led to the ouster of Qureshi. Yet others point to the distance between Qureshi and Zardari for the change.
Most of the 22 who President Asif Ali Zardari swore in are members of his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Prime Minister Gilani reduced the size of his 50-member cabinet, as stipulated under the 18 Amendment Act which was passed last year in parliament. This stipulates that the cabinet should be no larger than 11 percent of parliament, which would be a maximum of 49 members.
Government officials said more cabinet ministers would be sworn into office at a later date, including members of other parties in the coalition. Gilani said that his new cabinet would serve more "efficiently and honestly." The government is under pressure to implement reforms, in order to head off any possible threat of a call for early elections from opposition leader and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
Sharif in January gave the government 45 days to implement key reforms or risk having the PPP kicked out of government in Punjab province.
The new minister of state for foreign affairs, Hina Rabbai Khar, is an old survivor despite her comparatively young age. She was minister of state for finance in the Musharraf government and then shifted loyalties when the Peoples Party government came to power. She hails from the Khar family of South Punjab. She is one of the few women parliamentarians who have been elected directly to parliament. A businesswoman by profession, Khar is a graduate of the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and has a Masters from the University of Massachusetts.
(With inputs from HTC, New Delhi)