A portrait of the fallen Pakistani leader in the words of others
Nawaz Sharif (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
TO WRITE ON Nawaz Sharif… Me, a lifelong follower of Pakistani politics, and I find it difficult to write on Sharif. What a predicament.
The first time I heard Sharif’s name was during my first year of college. He was one of general-turned-martial-law-administrator-turned-president Zia-ul-Haq’s favoured protégés and one of his youngest provincial ministers. As I meandered through my life trying to figure out whether I was a literature and philosophy idealist or a typical Punjabi as strongly attracted to the world of politics as millennials are to the idea of a better world, Sharif was the chief minister of Punjab twice, and prime minister of Pakistan, not once, not twice, but three times.
It doesn’t get better than that in that mercurial realm of human machinations and actions that form a fascinating juxtaposition of clever strategies, multi-dimensional perseverance, calculated sacrifices, self-serving agendas and Machiavellian statecraft: politics. Sharif’s public curriculum vitae read like the summa cum laude of politics. Until it had an abrupt ending.
Not much comes to me when I think of the politician who attained more than the combined daydreams of dozens of those who devote their life, sanity and integrity to attainment of the highest positions in a country’s power paradigm. Being an observer of politics since the childhood ah-knowledge that government was a system and not a person, I noted certain constants in the political calculus of my beloved Pakistan—Bhutto, General Zia-ul-Haq and a few other generals, Nawaz Sharif, the clergy, Benazir Bhutto, and the families Bhutto and Sharif. Then came Imran Khan. All the other politicians, despite their painstakingly created portraits of relevance to the big picture of power, remain as mere footnotes. Yet I don’t have any real opinion of Sharif, even when he’s described: “No politician in the country has been more fortunate than him. And no Pakistani politician has been as unfortunate as him.”
Writing about any remarkable politician, I consult my mental archive of noteworthy speeches, inspirational or interesting quotes, solid stances, unpopular but courageous decisions, people-focused agendas and that X-factor that makes them unique. I go blank when I think of Sharif. To me, that is the worst thing a three-time prime minister’s entire political history should evoke in a middle-aged glass-half-full optimist like me. Sharif, on a superficial level, seems dull to me. Painfully dull. As a politician, as a prime minister. A man of a few expressions, mostly detached glumness in the recent years, Sharif seems like a man who lives in a palace but lacks the passion to dream big. For the country.
I don’t have any real opinion of Nawaz Sharif even when he’s described: ‘No politician in the country has been more fortunate than him. And no Pakistani politician has been as unfortunate as him’
Who I’d have more to say about: Sharif’s brother, Shehbaz Sharif, three-time chief minister, the incumbent president of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and my once-upon-a-time favourite politician for the work I believed he was doing in my province as chief minister; and Nawaz Sharif’s lovely and charismatic daughter, Maryam.
Today, Sharif is in jail. Having been life-disqualified from active politics, serving a seven-year sentence for the Al-Azizia corruption reference case, Sharif is still the unofficial head of the largest party of Pakistan. The grassroots support of his PML-N in Punjab remains unwavering, passionately demonstrated in the huge rallies Maryam,one of PML-N’s vice-presidents, manage to attract wherever she decides to speak in a fight for her ‘suffering-for-democracy’ father, who is jailed for ‘devoting his life to the good of Pakistan’ and is a ‘victim’ of the gleeful ‘machinations of the evil establishment’ and its ‘puppet’, the ‘selected prime minister, Imran Khan’.
The only hurdle in Maryam’s singular-agenda Save-Father mission: presently, she is also in the custody of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), like a few othermembers of her family and party, including first cousin Hamza Shehbaz Sharif, former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and some former ministers.
Shehbaz is also under investigation but currently on bail.
Even in the cloistered dynamics of the dynastic power structure of the PML-N, it is the Nawaz side of Sharifs which gets the first pick of who-will-be-the-next-prime-minister in Pakistan’s game of thrones. The not-so-subtle sidelining of Shehbaz and son Hamza to the provincial power stratum has highlighted, in all its Macbeth-ean sassiness, the translucence of the façade of love and unity the Sharifs wear more uncomfortably than their Zegnas and Hermès. Despite superficially announcing Shehbaz, the working-for-25-hours-a-day, passionate, Akele na jana-singing politician in the primitive imperial set-up of the House Sharif, to be the prime ministerial candidate after Nawaz’s dismissal, it was clear who the long-term candidate would have been—the stunning Maryam, the charming champion of the victimhood of Sharifs. The rest, as they say, is a mix of Julius Caesar meets King Lear almost colliding into Hamlet while colludingwith Richard III.
One important point: not one case against any of the Sharifs has been the doing of Imran Khan the politician or Imran Khan the prime minister or anyone in his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), or government. The fight to have an airtight accountability process against the corrupt rulers and their corrupt cronies has been the one invariable agenda of Khan’s two decades-long political career. Khan as prime minister has not let that mission of accountability lose traction while he governs, and occasionally struggles to find ways to end Pakistan’s economic and other issues, and have India’s August 5th Kashmir misadventure be registered as an international human rights tragedy that must have closure as per the wishes and rights of the 8-million Kashmiris.
The grassroots support of Sharif’s party in Punjab remains unwavering, passionately demonstrated in the huge rallies daughter Maryam manages to attract wherever she decides to speak in a fight for her ‘suffering-for-democracy’ father, who is jailed for ‘devoting his life to the good of Pakistan’, and is a ‘victim’ of the gleeful ‘machinations of the evil establishment’ and its ‘puppet’, the ‘selected prime minister, Imran Khan’
As the PML-N teeters with its main leadership under an accountability hammer, everyone has become an expert on Sharifs. Befuddled what to write on Sharif and his saga of the glory and ignominy of the politicaljourney of his family and party, a reluctance to judge slows my typos-punching fingers. Despite being a mere columnist and not a journalist, what I decided to do for this essay: seek opinions of those who claim to know him, those who idolise him and those who observe him from afar.
Having texted some of my PML-N buddies, high-profile politicians, I waited in vain for their quotes on the current political standing of Sharif’s family and party. Two of them responded, one of them sent a quote. What I’ve done is to avoid giving my own analyses of the good and the bad of the Sharif saga. Taking some excerpts from a Herald article on Nawaz Sharif, I’ve added a few quotes, which barring two will remain anonymous. Suffice it to say, it’s unwise to be too blunt in a world fuelled by toxic hashtags and gratuitous attacks on all who have a contrarian opinion.
Dissecting the Sharif phenomenon, IR Rehman, a veteran journalist, peace activist and human rights advocate, writes: ‘It seems three factors have played a decisive role in Nawaz Sharif’s fall. First, his desire to be a real prime minister with full powers. Secondly, a streak of impetuosity in his character that impels him to take drastic actions without weighing the risks. And, thirdly, his inability to realise that nobody could be an elected keeper of the folks and a robber baron at the same time.
‘[Sharif] owed his rise in politics to three army generals: General Ghulam Jilani, Punjab governor and former ISI chief, gave
the break Sharif needed by making him Punjab finance minister in 1981. General Zia-ul-Haq chose him to secure Punjab as the defender of their shared objective of Islamising society by pumping enormous money into Punjab’s economy. General Hamid Gul, as ISI chief, helped Sharif in 1988 by fostering the formation of the IJI.
‘Making money appeared to be good regardless of means but Sharif made two critical mistakes. First, he forgot that a politician has no private life. Secondly, he engaged lawyers to pull him out of trouble and not to prevent him from getting into it. Sharif was surprised when the petition for his trial on the basis of the Panama Leaks was admitted by the Supreme Court.’
Endorsing PML-N’s vehement stance of political victimisation, Maiza Hameed, a prominent PML-N leader and Member of National Assembly, texted to me: ‘We believe that although accountability is an important pillar of any state, it is only workable if it is without discrimination. As of now, opposition members are being arrested based on mere speculation, with no charges having being proved. No proper functioning democracy operates in such a manner. Clearly, there are different rules for opposition members than there are for PTI members.
‘As far as my leaders are concerned, even though it is painful to see them being made to suffer such injustices, I am inspired by their continued struggle and their unwillingness to compromise on their positions and principles. Now more than ever, they are leading us within the party through their example.
‘I think the way things are right now, it is not sustainable. The anger and frustration among the masses is building up. It is only a matter of time before this boils over, and my fear remains that through its actions, this government may undo all the good work democratic forces have done in this country over the past decade.’
Mubasher Lucman, a top anchorperson and an investigative journalist, sent a voice note in response to my question about the Sharifs: “My opinion on Nawaz Sharif and family, as far as their business is concerned, is very low. Nawaz Sharif made 19 companies during his PM tenures. All went bankrupt. His or his family’s companies only flourished when they were in power.
“Their story that they’re a business family since the 1960s, I’ve checked tax records filed by his father and uncles: never a significant tax return. They paid Rs 5,000 tax for many years. Mind-boggling. Their 29,000-kanal home, Jati Umra, they never paid any tax.
“While they were selling stuff here and setting up businesses in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, they were not paying taxes. When they claimed to NAB that they set-up a sugar mill in Jeddah and that was where the money went, Pakistan had a strict law of not sending any money out. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto passed that law. Dr Mubashir Hassan, Bhutto’s finance minister, said on record that it was money laundering.
“So much hogwash. Timelines don’t match. Taxes that they paid,they don’t match. It’s very easy to see serious financial misappropriations. Major scams, misusing their powerto get out. They had loans written off, rescheduled. They’ve not been smart in running businesses. They’ve been smart in ruining businesses andyet making money.”
A high-level bureaucrat posted in Islamabad, replied to my question about the Sharifs: “I can’t comment on their ‘corruption’; it’s NAB’s job to investigate that. My personal view is that the entire party and leadership didn’t have vision. There was no clarity when it came to which project government funds should go to. They put money in projects that’d create an immediate vote bank but without the realisation that the long-term result would be nothing but destruction.
“Billions of rupees of investment in Punjab but everything has crumbled. That shows they didn’t create any systems. All of it was an individual-based system. What the CM [Shehbaz Sharif] ordered, it happened; where he didn’t, nothing happened. CM office [in PTI government] is now weak—spread of dengue in Punjab, police out of control. It means that a long-term system wasn’t made. Their vision was short-term. We all know bureaucracy works the way a PM or a CM wants it to.”
When asked what he thought of where the Sharifs stand today, a former high-level diplomat replied in a terse text: ‘Sharif should not leave Pakistan. Nor should Maryam, no matter what. PML-N is under strain. Shahbaz is a dove but the party is not with him. Should Maryam quit the PML-N? That will further divide the party.’
Another former high-level diplomat, after his first text saying ‘I avoid making comments on politicians or political issues’ agreed to send a comment on the condition of keeping it unattributed to him: ‘Nawaz Sharif is an astute politician, and he built a strong party, which despite all challenges has remained intact. However, when it came to affairs of the state, he ran it as a personal fiefdom. He demanded absolute loyalty from the bureaucracy, and felt insecure with honest civil servants. He and his family corrupted the whole system. This is my honest opinion about him having closely worked with him.’
Despite superficially announcing Shehbaz Sharif, the working-for-25-hours-a-day, passionate, Akele na jana-singing politician in the primitive imperial set-up of the House Sharif, to be the prime ministerial candidate after Nawaz’s dismissal, it was clear who the long-term candidate would have been—the stunning Maryam, the charming champion of the victimhood of Sharifs
A popular artist sent a voice note regarding the Sharifs: “Nawaz Sharif and his family and his party, I wish these were different things. Unfortunately, this is how most of the parties in Pakistan are run. Except for probably PTI. Baap gaya, beta aagaya, beta gaya, bete ka beta aagaya.
“As far as Nawaz is concerned,recently, at least for me, he’s become irrelevant. Pakistan faces many issues today, for which I hold Sharif and his party responsible. Their mantra was ‘short term’, which resulted in many issues for Pakistan in the long term. Many people think that Imran Khan has messed it all up, but that’s untrue. Many people also think that Sharif ko wapis laya jaye and everything will be fine.
“I think Sharif and his family are [politically] finished. There is a view that PML-N should be made fully irrelevant but I think that should never happen. We can’t have a one-party based democracy [in Pakistan]. Good to be moving away from a two-party system, but we can’t have a one-party system. That is very dangerous.”
A CEO of a private equity company texted a long response when I asked him to comment on the Sharifs: ‘Nawaz Sharif, never have I seen a person of such mediocrity rise so far. He’s a proven vote-getter though. Family is equally useless. Boys are useless. Maryam has confidence and guts, but she lacks political wisdom. That’s the issue with all these kids. No sense of reality. Haven’t had to struggle or work, operate in a cocoon. Shahbaz has energy. Much better than Nawaz, but not a vote-getter.
‘They are corrupt. But they keep it in the family, unlike Zardari who spreads the wealth in the party and among his cronies. For Sharifs, it’s all family.
‘Their agenda seemed personal, not national. For example, Ishaq Dar [Sharif’s finance minister and father-in-law of one of Nawaz’s daughters] ruined the economy and was allowed to.
‘PML-N is the strongest party in Pakistan. Grassroots organisation. They get the people out on the voting day. Their media management is strong; they get their message across, whether it’s through ‘lifafa’ or whatever.
‘Lahore Metro Bus is a prime example of how they make money. Their projects look sensible, for public good, but they are a huge cost overrun. Many construction contracts were given to two-three favoured companies. PML-N governments only worked on infrastructure, not social sectors. Big contracts going to their own companies through cronies—Saaf Pani, Ashiana Housing, Metro bus, Orange Train. Sharifs, allegedly, took money for doing favours; they, allegedly, made huge amounts of money on commissions for large contracts.”
Another reluctant commentator was a serving high-level career diplomat. His view of the Sharifs is intriguing, a succinctly worded echo of what is articulated only in loud whispers in Pakistan: “Nawaz Sharif is basically religious yet flexible when it comes to pelf. Low intelligence, sub-optimal education, Sharif is driven mostly by appetites rather than principle. Propped up by the military, he later acquired a bravado stemming from sycophancy of cohorts rather than substance. Consequently, he got crushed by the military, but has not yet learned any lesson. Sharif tries to emulate oil Sheikhs despite coming from a developing country.”
And as I say, Shakespearean drama is as relevant as ever. It will be for as long as Pakistani politics exist.