A born-again Nawaz Sharif sat surrounded by journalists in Lahore a few months before the general election in February 2008. He had aged and had put on weight during his years in exile. His movements were deliberate and his conversations always peppered with Urdu proverbs taught at school. When General (retd) Pervez Musharraf incarcerated him in 1999, Nawaz Sharif looked pale, haggard and exhausted — a successful man who had suddenly fallen on bad times. Now, his cheeks had regained some of their old Kashmiri colour. On face value, he had been treated well in exile.
There were moments when he seemed to want to say something — maybe a complaint about those who had crossed over to his opponents after he and his family departed on their Saudi-sponsored pilgrimage to Jeddah. But he held back.
In late 2007, in Lahore, Nawaz Sharif was like a man in search of his lost memory and his somewhat obscured kingdom. He had returned with a new slate with the boycott of the polls written over it in bold letters. His old life was to come back to him in instalments, as he met people he was (once) familiar with, and went the course he had once gone through — even if some prominent betrayers stood little chance of being rehabilitated back into his life. “Aap batain (you tell me),” he would interject, elevating the journalists to the status of his advisers, while at the same time, letting some of them know – with his trademark selective aloofness – that they had forfeited their right to influence him by defecting to the other side in his absence. He was probing for new friends. In exile, he had been brought together with his long-time foe — the daughter of the man who had nationalised his Ittefaq Group of Industries, Benazir Bhutto. The nationalisation had forced the Sharif family to enter politics.
He had since discarded General Ziaul Haq as the fountainhead of his politics. His father, Mian Muhammad Sharif – who had found Nawaz Sharif his true mentors after routing him through a crash course in Asghar Khan’s Tehreek-e-Istaqlal – had passed away while the family was in exile. This had left Nawaz Sharif in charge of his politics.
He appeared keen on conveying an impression of himself as a man who had been chastened by experience. He argued that the civilian-military balance needed to be set right and that the military chief must be picked on the basis of seniority. His emphasis on the Charter of Democracy (CoD), which he had signed with Benazir Bhutto, was frequent to the point where it became a refrain in his rhetoric.
The echoes from the Charter frequently reverberated in the country’s politics – with each of the two major signatories choosing their own occasion to invoke its guidelines. Nawaz Sharif’s favourite part in the CoD pertained to the rule of law and he was not openly supportive of the idea of bringing the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) under effective civilian control.
There were moments when Nawaz Sharif looked poised for an all-out attack at Asif Zardari. He would, then, check himself and renew his pledge to work by the spirit of the CoD. This renewal was many times preceded by his visit to London, where his wife was undergoing medical treatment. As signs and symbols go, it was as if the pragmatic man, looking to re-establish his kingdom, was beholden to an agreement overseen by two women: a mature Benazir Bhutto and a very composed Kulsoom Nawaz Sharif, who had managed to free her family from a general’s grasp just a few years ago.
The reincarnated Nawaz Sharif owed much to Benazir Bhutto, who was to be slain after setting up the stage for a general election. It was her return to Pakistan which persuaded the Saudis to release the Sharif family from a bond under which they had promised to stay away from their homeland and its politics for 10 years. Before Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on December 27, 2007, she had prevailed upon Nawaz Sharif to commit to the polls. Had she succeeded in this endeavour of hers a little earlier, it could have given Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN) more time to beef up the party for even better results than those it got in the 2008 election.
The polls were delayed by a few weeks because of Benazir Bhutto’s murder, which found Nawaz Sharif consoling the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) workers and promising them that he will bring their leader’s killers to justice. Between the assassination and the election, he – as the sole surviving national leader – managed to recapture much of the ground he had lost.
Many parts of the empire that he had built since he held his first public office as the finance minister of Punjab, back in 1981, had stood by him even during his years away. Many areas which had slipped away from his grasp now began to return to him. Pieces from his previous life gradually began to resurface in his mind and he accepted them — selectively, to begin with.
When the Sher-e-Punjab was travelling from Lahore to Gujranwala, midway, he was approached by a deserter seeking an urgent audience. Some discussion followed and the sinners who betrayed him were reminded of the wrath they invited. Eventually, the repentant protégé was allowed re-entry into the house of the Sharifs.
Not too far away from the site of this Grand Trunk Road reunion, an old man came running up alongside a car carrying Nawaz Sharif, seeking forgiveness for his son who had been led astray from the right path and landed a ministerial post under Musharraf. The old man’s pleas were answered and his son drafted back into PMLN.
Under the CoD’s grandiose umbrella and with PPP’s help, PMLN easily formed the government in Punjab after the 2008 election. The Sharifs won more National Assembly seats in Punjab than any other party, in line with the predictions.
The win in Punjab marked the start of a phase where Nawaz Sharif would allow his brother Shahbaz Sharif to rediscover his old self quicker, while he himself sat back watching and adding to his reputation as a seasoned moderate elder among politicians. His soft responses in the name of promoting democratic culture led some of his admirers to even project him as more than a politician, as a statesman.
The arrangement was not new. As is common with household businesses here, Nawaz Sharif had always had this image of the calm elder brother who had a younger sibling to do the more onerous, dirtier work. While the younger man toiled excitedly, the elder brother – aloof in his off-white and light blue shalwar kameez suits that signified seniority and poise – carefully managed to retain a clean persona.
This was a partnership that encouraged comparisons between brothers. Journalists who were affected by Shahbaz Sharif, ‘the Doer’ would often paint him as the more effective of the two Sharifs. Nawaz Sharif allowed this, choosing for himself the image of someone who did not yield to a request readily, a politician with depth and the capability of keeping people guessing as to what he did know and understand and what he didn’t.
The Kargil face, if you like. Nawaz Sharif wore the face as he went to US President Bill Clinton, seeking an end to tensions between Pakistan and India after Kargil; a face which he now exhibited when he mildly expressed his displeasure at Shahbaz Sharif’s nightly meetings with the generals in his latest term as the chief minister of Punjab.
In Nawaz Sharif’s second life, reclaiming Punjab was central to the reconnection with the past and all its glory. This was accomplished, initially with PPP’s help and later by the creation of a forward bloc in Pakistan Muslim League–Quaid-e-Azam (PMLQ). Nawaz Sharif was sobriety personified as he made all the right political moves. He lent PPP a few ministers at the centre for some time but not without letting Zardari know clearly that there was one issue he was not ready to compromise on. That issue – the restoration of judges suspended by Musharraf – was crucial to Nawaz Sharif’s politics and as Zardari, for whatever reasons, dragged his feet over it, Nawaz Sharif grew in stature. The high point came when the judges were restored just as the PMLN chief came out of his home in Lahore to lead a march in Islamabad.
While, by and large, he maintained a tone of decency in his criticism, his second in command, Shahbaz Sharif, and their lieutenants found other issues for which to hit out at PPP and Zardari. Corruption, as always, was a good enough reason. The shortage of electricity was another worthy cause.
Nawaz Sharif looked confident and, according to many accounts, he is destined for a return to power, having managed to get the law removed against more than two prime ministerial terms. In time though, the Sharifs’ real challenge has come from Imran Khan.
In a way, Khan hastened the Sharifs’ quest for a restoration to their past role, and in another, he forced certain innovations on their part. The House of the Sharifs threw open its doors to its one-time friends, even when it remained cold to the overtures of some erstwhile comrades – such as the ones in PML-Likeminded – who were at the forefront of the party Musharraf created as an attempted substitute to PMLN. On the other hand, Mariam Nawaz Sharif emerged on the scene, along with schemes to woo the young, as a counter to Khan.
The word going around in the Sharif hometown of Lahore is that, while they had sought resumption from where they had left off in 1999, they have been forced by circumstances to begin anew from the point where they stood 25 years ago. Khan has somehow managed to reignite the fears PPP represented to the rather young Sharif dynasty in 1988 and has managed to force Nawaz Sharif’s voice to rise above its ‘statesmanly’ monotone.