Sayeeda Warsi: Baroness of the Punjab
Published in The Daily Telegraph, Monday 16th January
By Peter Oborne
As the traumatic events of the weekend show all too vividly, Pakistan is one of the most turbulent and unstable countries in the world, and a diplomatic nightmare.
But Britain has a secret weapon – Sayeeda Warsi. With her Punjabi heritage, local languages and easy manner, the Conservative Party chairman can reach parts of the Pakistan political system that other government ministers cannot.
As I witnessed at first hand last week, David Cameron has licensed Baroness Warsi to operate as Britain’s unofficial envoy. The Tory chairman flew into a first-rate crisis set off by the potentially deadly stand-off between government and military. The defence secretary had just been fired.
Within hours she was at the Pakistan foreign office for a meeting lasting well over an hour with Pakistan’s newly promoted – and extremely beautiful – foreign secretary, Hinna Rabbani Khar. Just 34 years old, the University of Massachusetts-educated Khar is the latest star phenomenon to hit the Islamabad scene and is suddenly being tipped as a potential successor to Asif Ali Zardari, should the government fall this week.
For the rest of the day, Baroness Warsi spoke by telephone to most of the main players in the Pakistan impasse – her mission being to help defuse the crisis and preserve a tottering democracy. Pakistan has lurched between military dictatorship and democracy since independence 60 years ago. A succession of military coups has meant that never once has power changed hands democratically in all that time – and it is possible that next year’s elections, too, may end up being cancelled.
The background to this turbulence is the cold war between the United States and Pakistan, following a series of deadly incursions by the US into Pakistani territory. As a close ally of the United States, Britain’s standing in Pakistan is being diminished – polls show that 82 per cent of Pakistanis regard Britain unfavourably.
This was the troubled background to Baroness Warsi’s conversations with President Zardari, his prime minister Yousuf Gilani, and a range of other politicians including Imran Khan, the former cricketer turned politician whose Movement for Justice enjoys huge popularity after a surge in recent months.At the end of the day, Baroness Warsi briefed William Hague over a secure phone. “I told him there would not be a coup d’état,” she said to me afterwards. “I just hope that I am not proved wrong.”
In between the calls, she gave an interview on Pakistan state television with presenter Moeed Pizada. Baroness Warsi used this media opportunity ruthlessly to reach out beyond Pakistan’s notoriously thin political elite to PTV’s mass rural audience. Elegant in her shalwar khameez, Baroness Warsi lapsed into Urdu, the local language, as she dealt with viewers’ questions.These reflected the concerns of ordinary Pakistanis about Britain’s super-tight visa and immigration controls. Pizada asked her whether, as the daughter of an immigrant herself, she was not betraying her heritage by supporting anti-immigrant policies.She replied that times had changed since her family arrived in Britain in the 1950s, and that it was important to protect jobs for British workers.Later I asked Pizada about the effect Baroness Warsi had had on her Pakistani audience. He said she was seen as the voice of a new, multicultural Britain and that the interest of viewers had risen sharply after she switched to Urdu, with hundreds of questions coming in.But he added that he was disappointed with the shallowness of her answer when she was asked why Britain did not do more to defend Pakistan’s interests against the United States, which is widely hated in Pakistan.
This is sensitive territory for Baroness Warsi because of the British relationship with the US. When I raise the sensitive subject of US drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas, she says: “It’s not for us to answer that. What we have said is that the sovereignty of a nation has to be respected.“Pakistan and ISAF [the International Security Assistance Force] are fighting the same enemy. People who want to destabilise Pakistan are the same people who want to destabilise us.”Baroness Warsi may be a British minister, but she is also a first-generation Pakistani migrant. Her father, Safdar Hussein, arrived in Britain in 1971 from Bewal, a tiny Punjab village, as a mill worker. Throughout Pakistan she is held up as an astonishing success story for the Pakistani immigrant community and an inspiration for millions. When she wore a shalwar khameez for her first meeting of the David Cameron cabinet in May 2010 the picture was a sensation in Pakistan and across much of the Muslim world.It is this background that gives her the power and authenticity to push the British government message to a hostile audience. She is heard in a different way, even though she sticks to the official line. This gives her the ability to spell out hard truths about religion and tolerance.
After Islamabad we flew to Karachi, where Baroness Warsi headed to the Jesus and Mary Convent, a Catholic school. She told the girls about her background: “My father came from a very poor family. They couldn’t afford shoes. Sometimes when the ground was very hard his brothers gave him a piggy back to get to the fields.” She told the children that their aspirations should be unlimited: “Anything is possible. Perhaps a future prime minister is standing among us today.” Upstairs, at breakfast with the Irish nuns who ran the convent school, she heard about the increasing danger on the Karachi streets, the threat of kidnappings and the risk of terrorist attack. “Twenty years ago I used to be able to walk along the beach,” says one nun. “I couldn’t do that now.” Then Baroness Warsi travels to St Patrick’s Cathedral for a meeting with Evarist Pinto, Archbishop of Karachi, who faces a hard job combating a rising tide of hostility to Christianity across Pakistan. He notes she is not carrying a handbag. “My father was a mill worker and I like to stay connected with my roots,” she says. The archbishop talks of the growing persecution of Christians, revealing that church property has been seized in the Punjab.The baroness offers to ring Shahbazz Shariff, Punjab’s chief minister. “What is the point of being in a position of influence if you don’t influence anybody?” she asks. “I should be raising these difficult issues because otherwise I am not committed to faith.” She tells the archbishop she believes in fighting for minorities – whether Christians in Pakistan or Muslims in the UK (a stance for which she has sometimes been criticised by Conservatives in Britain).
Baroness Warsi broke down in tears at her next destination – the headquarters of the famous sage Abdul Sattar Edhi, whose private charitable foundation is the nearest thing Pakistan has to a functioning welfare state. He now runs the second largest ambulance service in the world, while his orphanages have rescued countless children.Young women, rescued from the streets, are being taught arts and crafts. Baroness Warsi was cradling five-year-old Zainal – whose father is dead and whose mother is in psychiatric care – when she was overcome by emotion and had to leave the room to dry her tears.Northern, working-class and Muslim, Sayeeda Warsi has evolved a language of diplomacy that is all her own. She takes people with her, rather than dictates. She represents modern multicultural Britain in all its complexity, and she’s a Conservative. She is on her way to inventing a new type of politics for the looming age of authenticity.