Hina Rabbani Khar, the foreign minister of Pakistan, delivered a rather mundane speech at the Asia Society in New York City on Wednesday, while her personal life has become a fodder for debate and gossip 10,000 miles away.
Khar, the youngest (and first female) foreign minister in Pakistani history, spoke of how the world has now irrevocably entered the “Asian century” and that the establishment of democracy in Pakistan will allow her country to share in the economic transformation of Asia.
Following some vague generalities about how stability in the South Asia region is the only way to form enduring peace and prosperity, she admitted that she came from a privileged background, but that hopes to see a Pakistan where any child from even the poorest origin can one day become foreign minister like herself.
Khar then focused on two major subjects: Afghanistan and India.
In an unusually candid statement, she conceded that Pakistan has had tense relations with all of its neighbors, excluding China, which she described as a “close ally” and “dependable friend,” and a model for economic growth.
She asserted that Islamabad wants good relations with all of its neighbors, and does not seek to revisit the distrust and lack of confidence that scarred the past.
Kabul, she said, is the most important foreign capital with respect to Pakistan – asserting that stability in Afghanistan is a prerequisite to peace in the broader region. Underscoring this view, she noted that she has made more visits to Kabul than another foreign city.
With respect to India, again she admitted that Pakistan and India have “baggage” from the past and that both sides must come to a compromise over territorial issues like Kashmir (claimed by both counties).
She also referred to how the gradual normalizing of trade relations between India and Pakistan will elevate trust and confidence.
Following her speech, Khar answered a number of questions from Tom Nagorski, the executive vice president at the Asia Society.
Khar repudiated the inflammatory comments of Pakistani Railways Minister Ghulam Ahmad Bilour, who has offered a $100,000 bounty for the murder of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the man who made the “Innocence of Muslims” film.
Referring to the fact that Bilour (who has refused to step down from his post) has been chastised by the Pakistan government and by his own Awami National Party, Khar said neither she nor Islamabad would condone violence in any way. However, she added that Bilour's views were his own and that the “sensitivities” of Muslims around the world must be respected.
She also said she was “embarrassed” by the violence that the controversial video sparked on the streets of Pakistan -- which has so far killed at least 21 people.
Khar appeared poised and confident during her appearance at the Asia Society, but one must wonder how she is dealing with a gathering scandal brewing in the subcontinent.
A Bangladeshi tabloid called “The Weekly Blitz” has published a story detailing how Khar is having an affair with Bilawal Bhutto, the son of President Asif Ali Zardari and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Bilawal is not only 11 years younger than Khar (who is 35), but is also being groomed to be the leader of Pakistan, carrying on the Bhutto family dynasty. (Tellingly, he has retained his mother’s maiden name.)
The report also claimed that Zardari is incensed by the relationship and worries it may jeopardize his son’s political future. Bilawal, apparently, is so angered by his father’s disapproval that he has threatened to resign from the Bhutto family’s Pakistan People’s party.
The tabloid report also suggested that Khar (who is married and has two children) wants a divorce and to move with young Bhutto to Switzerland, where he reportedly has millions of dollars stashed away, citing secret Western intelligence sources.
Pakistani media have not delved too deeply into the story, but their counterparts in India are having a field day with the juicy saga.
Khar’s husband, a millionaire businessman named Firoze Gulzar, has reportedly requested a search of his wife’s phone records to uncover the truth about her alleged cheating.
Gulzar was, however, quoted by Pakistan's Geo News network saying that he thinks the tabloid’s story of his wife having an affair is ”rubbish.”
Geo also reported that Khar would not comment on the allegations.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.