Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who was less than well disposed towards India, was stripped of his portfolio as foreign minister in the reconstitution of the Pakistan federal cabinet following which he refused to take oath.
A voluble leader, 54-year-old Qureshi, who headed the foreign ministry in the PPP-led government since March 2008, did not join the new ministry formed by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani who had dissolved the cabinet two days back. For now, the foreign ministry will be looked after by Hina Rabbani Khar, who was minister of state for finance in the dissolved cabinet, according to a statement issued by the Prime Minister's Office.
The statement did not specify if Khar, 34, will have independent charge of the portfolio. The 34-year-old has been participating in discussions with the World Bank and the IMF for financial reforms in Pakistan and is familiar with western leaders.
The decision to drop Qureshi comes shortly before India and Pakistan are to resume their stalled dialogue process. Offered the Water and Power portfolio, the former foreign minister was apparently reluctant to join the government, PPP spokesperson Fauzia Wahab told PTI. He stayed away from the swearing-in ceremony for Gilani's new cabinet even as a chair was placed for him. A lawyer by profession, Qureshi was considered a hardliner because of his apparent proximity to the Army.
At a press conference with External Affairs Minister S M Krishna in July last year, he equated Home Secretary G K Pillai's comments to those of Jamaat ud Dawaa chief Hafiz Saeed. He also said that Krishna often got calls from India during the bilateral talks and left the room for consultations. Incidentally, Qureshi was in India when the 26/11 attack in Mumbai took place in November 2008 and had to cut short his visit.
State-run PTV reported earlier in the day that the former foreign minister would be among 23 ministers who would take oath, but he was not present when President Asif Ali Zardari administered the oath of office to 21 federal ministers and a minister of state at a ceremony in the presidency.
Gilani reconstituted his cabinet after demands for reforms from the opposition and international donors. Qureshi was perceived as being close to the army and had been projected as a prime ministerial candidate after the PPP emerged as the single largest part in the 2008 general election. There was also speculation last year that he could replace Gilani as the premier in the event of shake-up in the highest levels of the PPP.
PPP insiders said Gilani also did not have a comfortable relationship with Qureshi. Both leaders hail from the Multan region of Punjab province and had an uneasy working relation, they said.
A series of meeting between secretaries of the two countries will be held before the Pakistani Foreign Minister visits New Delhi in July. Khar, the daughter of Ghulam Noor Rabbani Khar and niece of feudal lord Ghulam Mustafa Khar, was earlier a member of the PML-Q and served as Minister of State for Economic Affairs during the regime of former military ruler Pervez Musharraf.
She joined the PPP before the 2008 election and was later made Minister of State for Finance. She has been a key member of the financial team that has been holding negotiations with Western powers and international donors like the US and the International Monetary Fund for financial aid to tide over Pakistan's economic problems. Prime Minister Gilani's old cabinet resigned earlier this week as part of an exercise to refurbish the PPP-led government's flagging image.
The new cabinet is smaller but retained many old members. At least nine former ministers retained their portfolios, including Interior Minister Rehman Malik, Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Sheikh, Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar, Commerce Minister Amin Fahim, Religious Affairs Minister Syed Khursheed Shah and Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti.
Former Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira and former Power and Water Minister Raja Parvez Ashraf, facing criticism for their performance, were dropped from the cabinet. The new faces in the cabinet include Inter-Provincial Coordination Minister Raza Rabbani, State and Frontier Regions Minister Engineer Shaukatullah, Science and Technology Minister Changeez Jamali and Narcotics Control Minister Khuda Bux Rajar.
Prime Minister Gilani, who was present at the oath-taking ceremony, had dissolved his cabinet with nearly 60 ministers and ministers of state after the main opposition PML-N and Western donors, including the International Monetary Fund, demanded reforms and cuts in government spending.
The government is also required to downsize the cabinet in line with a constitutional reforms package passed by parliament last year. Under the 18th constitutional amendment, the size of the cabinet should not be more than 49 members or 11 per cent of the total strength of parliament. Official sources said the cabinet is expected to be expanded soon with the induction of several ministers, including those from parties in the PPP-led ruling coalition.